QC mark and Law Society panels under scrutiny for help they give consumers

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By Legal Futures

21 July 2010

Kenny: should some quality assurance schemes be mandatory?

The role of the QC mark and various accreditation schemes, including Law Society panels, in helping the public identify quality legal services is to be tested, it has emerged, with the Legal Services Consumer Panel expressing scepticism over their value to consumers.

The Legal Services Board (LSB) has requested the panel’s advice about consumer perspectives on quality in the provision of legal services, and asked it to commission independent qualitative research as part of the process.

In the tender document that went out to research companies, the panel said that a number of quality measures, quality marks and accreditation schemes already exist, but “while some of these measures are designed to help consumers, others are simply to help those within the industry to benchmark quality”.

It continued: “Furthermore, they have been designed by lawyers, with little attempt to understand how consumers define quality, or what information consumers may want when seeking legal advice. Previous research by the Ministry of Justice [in 2007] suggests that consumers have very low awareness of existing quality marks and labels, as well as little knowledge of whether an advisor is a member of such schemes.”

LSB chief executive Chris Kenny highlighted to the panel three specific issues about which the board wants advice:

  • The way consumers perceive and judge the quality of legal services, both in selecting providers and retrospectively once they have received the service;
  • Consumers’ perception of the validity and utility of existing or potential future quality marks in assisting in the selection of legal services providers, both in relation to “traditional” face-to-face services and through online or other new access to justice route; and
  • How consumers might want to see such schemes develop in future and how they think quality assurance schemes should relate to regulation (for example, should some be mandatory for those undertaking particular types of work?).

Mr Kenny said that although research generally finds that consumers welcome more information, in practice such information is found to have little impact on consumer decision-making. So he asked the panel to go into more depth “in order to really understand what consumers assume about the quality of the legal service providers and the most useful ways of assisting them in making future choices of legal services providers”.

The research brief acknowledged that quality is a difficult concept to define, but said understanding quality is a “significant challenge” for consumers, who are generally unable to assess the competence of the adviser or whether the advice given is suitable. An LSB survey last year indicated that most consumers rely on recommendations and/or previous experience when choosing a lawyer.

The panel has been asked to deliver its advice by the end of November.

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