There is “a compelling moral and economic case” for the Legal Services Board (LSB) to pursue initiatives such as an NHS Direct-style telephone service to help people find the legal advice they need, its consumer adviser has urged.
The proposal was made in a report by the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) to the LSB, part of a project to encourage the empowerment of legal services consumers. It follows two similar discussion papers earlier this year.
The premise of the report is that consumers need to be empowered for the legal market to function properly. This is hampered by their poor attitudes towards lawyers; survey data cited in the report found only 43% of the general public generally trust lawyers to tell the truth and just 30% believe they are well regulated.
The case for a centralised source of help is particularly strong, the panel argued, because information about obtaining legal advice and the process of going to law is so fragmented. With information spread across multiple websites, consumers are unable to exercise their buying power. Surveys have found the use of comparison sites by consumers of legal services to be minimal.
The LSCP said: “It seems to us that the LSB’s first priority should be to set the right strategic direction on a market-wide basis, by identifying the correct balance between consumer and competition policy.”
The LSB should “explore the desirability and feasibility” of creating “the equivalent of NHS Direct for law, using intelligent technology to provide a form of early diagnosis which people are most likely to use when experiencing a problem in order to work out what to do next. There is a compelling moral and economic case to strengthen prevention through tools such as this”.
Research conducted by the LSB last year showed for an NHS Direct or Tripadvisor-style website that could help provide them with legal information, support and advice.
However, the LSCP cautioned against “an over-reliance on policies to empower consumers due to limits to what these can achieve on their own”. The first step was to “to ensure the consumer protection framework is fit for purpose”. When consumers believe that regulation is effective, they will have greater confidence to make informed decisions when choosing a legal services provider, it said.
LSCP chair Elisabeth Davies said: “Consumers are being left in the dark when choosing legal services because the information they need is either unavailable or scattered across different websites. If people can’t see where they’re going, they won’t vote with their feet – competition will remain stifled unless this situation changes.
“We need to cut through the regulatory maze so that in future information is provided in ways that reflect the realities of people’s lives rather than narrow organisational remits, as now. A joined-up approach is essential, but without leadership on this, everyone will wait for someone else to make the first move.
“Better information won’t be enough on its own to promote competition. Unless consumers trust lawyers and have confidence in regulators to protect them from harm – neither of which is currently the case – they’re likely to stick with what they know rather than switch to new providers.”
The LSB has recently come under fire from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and others about the extent of its reach, including spending on research which was considered unnecessary.