Greater prescription of how client-care letters are framed could follow a Legal Services Board (LSB) report yesterday that said “inaccessible language” used by lawyers prevents consumers from accessing legal services.
The report showed them how other sectors have developed guides, logos and customer information which made buying services less daunting for consumers.
According to the LSB, inaccessible language and communications, lack of trust, and a failure to cater for the needs of vulnerable consumers are three key non-financial factors that contribute to unmet legal need.
It said the evidence showed that “inaccessible language and the perception of it can prevent consumers from accessing services. Moreover, the impact appears to be greater on certain demographics and particularly on vulnerable consumers.
“It follows that wider use of plain, non-technical language would help to address a proven barrier to consumers accessing legal services.”
Drawing on work done in fields such as financial services, pension and health, the report highlighted the need for “clear disclosure of key consumer information by providers”.
The LSB said: “It has been observed previously within the legal services sector that client care letters are sometimes used to provide detailed terms and conditions (T&Cs) to clients under the belief that this is necessary, without adequate consideration of the impact that this has on consumers.
“Relying on lengthy T&Cs, which are usually drafted as legal documents, as a means of explaining to clients the service that will be provided, is an example of inaccessible communication which can prevent consumers from progressing a matter or seeking advice again in the future. It can also contribute to decreased trust in a provider and in lawyers more generally.”
Work done for the Financial Conduct Authority showed how “consumer understanding and engagement could be significantly increased by layering information so that the consumer receives a summary disclosure of the most important information on the services they are receiving upfront, with clear signposts to other additional information”.
The LSB found “proportionate mandatory disclosure requirements” to be a central concept in regulation in other sectors, and said it would task the Legal Services Consumer Panel to advise on the effectiveness of what the various legal regulators currently do to ensure lawyers provide clear information.
It noted that the regulators are currently scoping a joint piece of work on client-care letters. “We hope that this work will include consideration of summary disclosure of certain key information,” the oversight regulator said.
The LSB was also keen on how other sectors used consumer research to develop guides or toolkits for providers on accessible language and communications.
“The LSB believes that there could be significant value in the development and promulgation of language guides or toolkits for legal services providers,” the report said. “The purpose could be to develop sector-wide understanding of common words and phrases which should be avoided, replaced or explained, as well as words and means of explaining services those which are accessible.”
The consumer panel will also be asked to consider this.
Other lessons the LSB drew from its work were the value of developing simple, plain English guides explaining regulation to consumers, creating logos and other visual representations for providers to use to denote regulation, and “embedding the importance of consumer vulnerability within the work of regulators”.
It said there could be “some quick wins” with quality marks and regulator logos, saying this could build consumer trust and confidence.
“In this regard, it is noteworthy that the Costs Lawyers Standards Board already allows those that it regulates to use a logo as a ‘mark of regulation’.”
The consumer panel has already published a guide to assist regulators in recognising and responding to consumer vulnerability, and the LSB said it hoped the regulators were using it.
“Whilst some good progress has been made, more can be done. How regulators are responding to consumer vulnerability will continue to be a feature of our ongoing regulatory standards work,” it added.
LSB chief executive Neil Buckley said: “We know that a high proportion of consumers with a legal problem do not seek legal advice. Many of the barriers experienced are not unique to legal services…
“The report has been drafted to assist the work of the approved regulators. In drawing attention to ways of tackling these barriers, we want to complement and supplement the existing work that regulators are undertaking.”