Ombudsman hints at giving users of online legal services access to redress

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By Legal Futures

9 May 2012

Sampson: online services could well inadvertently lead you up the garden path

Consumers using online legal services should have access to proper redress, the Legal Ombudsman has suggested.

Adam Sampson said he was not convinced there is a difference between a legal product and a legal service, and argued that those who design online legal products should be held to account for mistakes they may make.

Mr Sampson said online services are “fundamentally different” from DIY will packs bought from the Post Office. “[It’s] not quite like picking up a bunch of paper forms that you diligently grind through, knowing that you’re on your own and the Post Office isn’t going to help.

“It could be because there is so much choice on the Internet. We’ve seen one online divorce firm, which offers at least three different online packages. You don’t so much sit down with your cuppa… and work your way through it, but do your homework first – can I do it myself? Or do I want the package with someone else checking it? Or a bit of advice too? There appears to be seasoned professionals lurking in the DNA of these products, or at least in the ones I have seen.”

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As a result he questioned why consumers should not be able to access redress about the service these sorts of products provide. “They could well inadvertently lead you up the garden path, if the fact that whatever it is they offer – conveyancing, divorce – doesn’t fit with your own circumstances. Or, worse, if the software has a glitch that makes it get the calculation wrong.

“That seems to me to be the bit that is fundamentally different – rather than an innocent mistake mucking up one transaction, we’re talking about the potential for tens, hundreds, or even thousands to suffer from a lack of quality assurance in a system. And I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect that the people who design these systems should be held to account.”

Mr Sampson wrote on the ombudsman’s website that the public expects to be able to trust “whoever is pumping out information services… or a product that aims to help you keep costs down and tackle what can be complex legal issues at home of an evening”.

While he has not yet resolved the dilemma, he suggested that the ombudsman service will have to tackle it, “probably sooner rather than later”.


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