Struck-off solicitors are acting as McKenzie Friends, raising ethical concerns and providing a service that gives no recourse to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) has warned as it highlighted issues around the unbundling of legal services that it is set to investigate.
Meanwhile, a joint event will be held by the panel and the Law Society this summer to examine the issue of restoring the public’s trust in lawyers, it also emerged in the LSCP’s programme of work for 2013/14.
The panel said it would conduct research in the next year that reflected the reality of a post-alternative business structure (ABS) legal market, in which “new online technologies are well and truly taking hold”.
Among areas it will examine are unbundled services in the context of “the regulatory implications of the rise of litigants-in-person”, plus the responsibilities of opposing advocates towards them.
Research into the “growing reality” of DIY law might lead to recommendations such as “simplifying common legal processes”, the panel predicted. It will cover self-help tools, including automated will-writing and tenancy agreement documents.
It will also consider whether restrictions on lawyers who act as McKenzie Friends are “justified and do not wrongly limit access to professional legal help”. But the panel pointed to “anecdotal evidence that some individuals acting as McKenzie Friends are struck-off solicitors, raising obvious ethical concerns”.
Turning to unregulated legal advisers generally, the panel said they can offer good value, low-cost expertise. But there is there is also “potential for consumer detriment” and, if service is poor, no recourse to LeO. It added: “This is an emerging market, but one which could grow rapidly.” It urged that LeO “switch on” its voluntary jurisdiction – an option under the Legal Services Act.
The effort to restore public trust in lawyers has been agreed by the LSCP and the Law Society and is due to take place between July and September, according to the panel’s programme of work for 2013/14. It contrasted lawyers’ with the 80% for doctors, despite almost eight out of 10 clients believing their own lawyer is trustworthy.
Other areas the LSCP will address during 2013/14 include research into the legal needs and experiences of people with learning disabilities and completing its review of regulators’ financial arrangements.
LSCP chair Elisabeth Davies admitted the panel’s approach to holding “the regulators to account on behalf of consumers” while “also seeking to work with them” was a “balancing act”. She observed that the panel was “dependent on co-funding” for its research budget and suggested it could “add new value” by acting as “a broker and facilitator”.
Ms Davies added: “ABSs have arrived and new online technologies are well and truly taking hold. Less than half of legal services are now being delivered face to face. As the legal sector transforms at great pace, regulators must listen to consumers and respond quickly to the changing landscape…
“But we need to tackle the different risks online markets present – for example, around unclear pricing, manipulation of consumer choice and data protection. Uptake of these products will increase faster if consumers are confident they are safe to use.
“But this year we’re also not losing sight of the fact that some of the recent legal developments are out of economic necessity. The reality is that more people now have to represent themselves in court or can only afford to pay for a little legal work.”