In March 2016, the SRA published their Spring Update to the 2015/2016 Risk Outlook which highlighted a failure to provide a proper standard of service particularly for vulnerable clients as one of the priority risks facing the profession.
What is a vulnerable client?
There really is not a straightforward answer. A person may be vulnerable for a number of reasons, including but not limited to;
- advanced age, children and young people
- physical disabilities or ill health
- loss of mental capacity to make relevant decisions
- mental health problems
- learning disabilities
- difficulty in accessing and/or understanding complex information, e.g. due to emotional factors such as bereavement
- communication difficulties i.e. English is second language, illiteracy etc.
Any one or a combination of these risk factors may mean that your client is vulnerable. In turn, your client may require additional assistance to understand the advice you are giving and just as importantly, they may lack capacity in terms of making decisions and providing instructions to you.
Having identified these risk factors, the next step is to ascertain any specific needs your client may have to ensure you provide the best access to your services? Example enquiries include;
- Do they have any requirements or preferences for communicating with you?
- Do they have any requirements to access your services, i.e. to overcome mobility problems or hearing or sight difficulties?
- Do they have any requirements in terms of how services are provided e.g. documents written in clear and simple language or information given orally?
- Do they understand and can act on the information and advice provided, or whether they may need support to do this e.g. from an interpreter?
What are ‘reasonable adjustments’?
The ‘reasonable adjustments’ duty under the Equality Act 2010 states: you must anticipate the needs of people with particular types of disability as well as making tailored reasonable adjustments for individuals.
Below are examples of adjustments to aid communication with your clients:
- allowing extra time for meetings with clients who may need longer to understand what you are explaining,
- do not speak in legal jargon
- provide information for visually impaired clients i.e. documents in large print, Braille, audio
- provide written text on a coloured background; which is beneficial for dyslexic clients
- provide a sign language interpreter, lip-speaker or deaf-blind communicator
Firms must have policies and procedures in place which recognise and address the needs of vulnerable clients and thus, ensure that these clients receive a proper standard of service. In addition, staff should be trained to understand their statutory duty to provide a proper standard of service to vulnerable clients and in ways to achieve this.
What are the risks to your firm in failing to meet the needs of a vulnerable client?
- Discrimination claims or a claim for a failure to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act 2010 
- A claim for damages or compensation against you or your firm
- A complaint against you to the Legal Ombudsman
- Reputational risk of you and your practice
Why is it so important that law firms recognise and act upon this priority risk?
- Principle 2 of the Code of Conduct 2011 requires you to act with integrity.
- Principle 5 requires you to provide a proper standard of service – which includes to clients who are vulnerable.
- Outcome 1.5 requires that the service you provide to clients is competent, delivered in a timely manner and takes account of your clients’ needs and circumstances.
- The Equality Act 2010 imposes a duty on businesses providing services to the public to anticipate and make reasonable adjustments so that a person who is disabled (and thus may be vulnerable) is not disadvantaged.
- The Statement of Solicitor Competence includes the requirement to meet the service needs of vulnerable clients.
In the last 4 years, whilst complaints about solicitors have decreased by 22%, research has shown that 44% of clients who were dissatisfied with the service they received did not complain and it is likely that vulnerable clients are disproportionately represented amongst those.
Can you answer YES to the following;
- Does your firm have in place a Vulnerable Client Policy?
- Do you have an entry on your Risk Register explaining your processes in mitigating potential risk in identifying and dealing with vulnerable clients?
- Do staff make reasonable adjustments to ensure a proper standard or service for clients who are identified as vulnerable?
- Have you trained your staff to recognise circumstances which could make a client vulnerable? Do they understand what to do in those circumstances to ensure that such clients receive a proper standard of service?
For further information on how Legal Eye can assist you and for a sample Policy on Vulnerable Clients, Clients with Mental Health and Incapacity Issues, please email firstname.lastname@example.org  quoting reference #VC-052016