Black and minority ethnic (BME) consumers of legal services are getting a “raw deal” when choosing and using legal services, according to the Legal Services Consumer Panel, after its research showed levels of trust, loyalty and satisfaction lower among BME groups that white British consumers.
The consumer watchdog highlighted problem areas and recommended that legal regulators and representative bodies research the issue further.
The 2016 tracker survey by the panel, carried out by YouGov in February and March, consulted nearly 2,000 adults and a further 1,500 who had used legal services in the past two years. ‘Booster’ samples covered the BME groups, giving a “95% confidence level” that the findings were not down to chance.
The panel said it recognised that some of the findings resulted from societal inequalities in earning power and education levels, “but there are several areas where the approved regulators and representative bodies can and should take action to ensure that legal services providers better serve all users”.
Previous surveys have suggested that while people had generally poor trust in lawyers as a class, they were satisfied with their own lawyers’ performance. This was less true among BME groups, the survey found. While 83% of white British were satisfied with the professionalism of their lawyer, just 67% of BME clients agreed, falling to 60% among those of Pakistani and black African origin.
Significantly, in terms of willingness to complain about poor service, just 34% of BME users of legal services raised concerns, compared to 51% of white British.
On different experiences of the law, the survey said: “Fundamentally, the type of legal problem [BME consumers] are likely to face tends to differ… [They] are more likely to deal with immigration services, advice about benefits or tax credits, employment disputes, or housing problems, all areas of law which are less transactional, and provide less of an element of choice in terms of actively selecting a legal professional or other provider.”
It found that BME groups were half as likely to use the same lawyer as before, and valued specialism as the most important attribute of a lawyer, above reputation, price and speed of delivery. By contrast, white British buyers of legal services said they valued reputation, price and convenience above specialism.
The panel said this was “perhaps unsurprising given that BME users are 10 times more likely to have dealt with immigration matters than white British, an area where specialism is required due to both the complexity of the law and the potential impact poor case handling can have”.
BME groups were a little more likely to have shopped around (11% searched the internet) and were found to have much greater experience of areas of law where fixed fees were not used, such as personal injury.
Similarly, family and housing matters – typically billed by hourly rates or legal aid – were more frequently accessed, rather than will-writing, power of attorney and conveyancing, in which fixed fees were more common. Meanwhile, 9% BME used legal aid compared to 2% of white British.
The survey found just 29% of BME consumers – including only 13% of ethnic Pakistanis and 12% of black Africans – had a will, as against 42% of white British. Representative bodies should target these groups about the importance of preparing a will, the panel advised.
It also called for research on differences in choosing lawyers by ethnic groups, work towards price transparency, and focus on why BME groups were less trusting of lawyers.
Elisabeth Davies, the panel’s chair, said: “We have seen this gap in satisfaction and experience persist over the last six years, but this report really highlights the extent to which BME groups are getting a raw deal when choosing and using legal services.
“Starting with addressing the fundamental lack of trust in the profession, it is clear that there is work to be done by regulators and representatives to ensure everyone is able to access quality, satisfactory and affordable legal services, no matter their ethnicity.
“There are lessons to be learned too – BME groups are more active in shopping around and place a higher premium on specialism, and white British groups are far more likely to have prepared a will. These behavioural differences can and should be used to better understand the risks posed to different groups of consumers and what can be done to address these.”