Consumer panel: call in paralegals to meet demand for family advice

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20 May 2016

Elisabeth Davies

Davies: the problem of unmet need “is not going away”

Law firms should offer “paralegal services” to cut the cost of advice on family matters, the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) has suggested.

The LSCP also called for greater use of unbundling and regulatory action to promote price transparency and wider use of fixed fees in family law.

In a report for the Legal Services Board (LSB), the panel identified family, immigration and housing work as priorities for regulatory action to increase access to services.

The panel said the removal of legal aid from most private law family cases under LASPO “should not be left to result in a lack of access to legal services in the long term”.

It went on: “The question now is whether the market can adapt to fill the gaps. For example, firms might consider offering paralegal services, a lower-cost alternative, or unbundled services for would-be litigants in person.

“Research carried out for the Ministry of Justice on litigants in person in the family courts found that where reasons for self-representation were known, approximately half were due to cost alone.”

The LSCP said the Family Matters project, operated by Resolution between April 2013 and September last year, had involved working with parents to deal with their problems in a “holistic” way. “This project highlighted where a solicitor mediator acting neutrally for both parties could carry out (for example) drafting of consent orders, rather than referring the work to a separate solicitor.

“This flexibility needs to be supported by the frontline regulators, as ultimately it relies on there being appropriate regulatory guidance and support to navigate new methods of service delivery.”

The panel asked whether the frontline legal regulators “could be encouraged to promote price transparency” and explore ways of “widening the range of cases on offer on a fixed-fee basis”.

On immigration, the panel noted that the Bar Standards Board was researching services provided by barristers, following a report by the Solicitors Regulation Authority published in January this year, which found that almost half of asylum seekers were not satisfied with their lawyers.

The panel asked whether the LSB should revisit its 2012 review of the regulation of immigration services, in the light of the work carried out by the two frontline regulators.

It asked what could be done in partnership with the Office of the Immigration Services Commissioner to ensure more consistent standards, and whether the SRA and BSB should take action over the “role and use of translation services”.

On housing, the panel questioned whether there was a role for frontline regulators in encouraging better information and addressing “issues of diminishing specialisation and regional disparities in the availability of advice”.

Elisabeth Davies, chair of the legal services consumer panel, said: “Regulators need to find new and creative ways of combining the provision of effective legal services with consumer protection.

“The problem of dealing with unmet need is one which we have a collective responsibility to address. These issues are not new, and are not going away.

“It is becoming increasingly clear that there must be more cooperation among regulators, representative bodies and third sector advice bodies to support increased access to justice and to safeguard the most vulnerable users.”

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