Co-operative Legal Services (CLS) will this summer launch its family law service in London before rolling it out nationwide, director Christina Blacklaws has revealed.
Ms Blacklaws, who joined CLS last November to help spearhead the offering, said that from launch CLS will provide the full range of family law services, and has a legal aid contract.
Addressing last week’s Legal Futures conference in London, sponsored by NatWest, she said: “For people who are not eligible for legal aid we will have transparent and fixed pricing structures.
“Our services will be offered in a way that we believe consumers want, by telephone, online and of course face to face. We will cover court representation, where that’s necessary, across the country. We will offer a range of services including mediation. We aim in family and in the other areas to offer consumers a choice a new and more accessible way of meeting their needs…
“What we learn in London, we will roll out across the country; the experiences here in terms of our client base is challenging, with as many social problems as you would find anywhere else.”
Ms Blacklaws added that CLS – which received its alternative business structure licence last month – was working with the Co-operative Bank to develop ways to help clients finance their cases if needed.
She emphasised that legal services is not “a random diversification” by the Co-operative Group. “It’s wrapped up with our ethos and our social goals. We’ve entered the market and we aim to be here long term, growing our business with a balance of ambition and caution.
“In other words we want to launch services which are tailored for the public and the consumer providing best quality in doing this in a sustainable and ethical way. We want to reach out the public, to all our members and customers and provide them with the legal services that they need.”
She warned that those who expect CLS to offer a “cheap, low-quality service” will be in for a shock. “I’m not interested in doing anything that is going to in any way devalue that brand… My hope is that the Co-operative’s engagement in legal services market will drive up quality, will offer consumers better choice but also enable others to be present in the market.”
Ms Blacklaws said she also hoped that CLS would appeal to lawyers. “We hope to attract the brightest and the best,” she said. “We’re actively recruiting for new positions and can offer competitive salaries, terms and conditions. The majority of the staff in our new family law team are qualified solicitors, many with years of experience.
“What we’re offering to everyone is an alternative career structure, one which doesn’t lead to traditional partnership, but does offer the ability to specialise, develop managerial experience and leadership.”
There should also be wider benefits to the profession from CLS working with software providers to develop systems that have hitherto not existed in family law because there has not been a large-scale provider in the area before that has encouraged them to invest.
CLS research has found that “a large of number of people simply don’t think that lawyers are for them”, Ms Blacklaws explained. “Of course that’s a misconception but it’s one I’d suggest that we as a profession have failed to adequately address. For whatever reason, lawyers are seen as remote, often intimidating and the whole process of accessing legal services is one which fills the public with fear.
“Added to this public reluctance and sometimes the negative connotations is the fact that the simple commercial realities of running a small to mid-sized law practice means firms have to choose whom they will serve. In making that choice many consumers fall between the gaps and it’s those people we want to include in our service, we want to reach out to.
“They are often the ordinary members of the public; you might term them the coping classes, the people who are not sufficiently rich to be able to afford traditionally hourly based services and not sufficiently poor to be eligible for legal aid.”
CLS describes its approach as “wrapping our arms around the customer”, she added.