Decision making stress: regulators can help

Frontline regulators need to trial a range of materials to help consumers make better decisions in the wake of the legal aid cuts, academic research commissioned by the Legal Services Board (LSB) has urged.

The research – carried out by John Maule, emeritus professor for human decision making at Leeds University – was based on the assumption that people often make key decisions quickly and without deliberation, based on such things as how a particular decision makes them feel.

The LSB commissioned the research in pursuit of its regulatory objective to increase public understanding of legal rights and duties.

The research suggested regulators should offer assistance to people seeking solutions to their legal problems, since legal aid cuts will have put more of them in the position of having to make decisions without direct input from legal experts.

Prof Maule examined published research on decision-making in the legal, financial and medical fields and conducted in-depth interviews with academics and practitioners. Decision-making support, known as ‘interventions’, should either be ‘just in time’ – giving help as a decision is actually being made – or ‘just in case’, which involves educating people about decisions they may have to take in the future.

Key problems identified with helping consumers make decisions on legal services included that they were often reluctant to accept help when it could not “easily be integrated in to their normal pattern of buying behaviour”, and that they often mistrusted the motives underlying it; “i.e. whether it is serving the interests of those running the intervention rather than theirs”.

Prof Maule concluded that “‘just in time’ interventions have the potential to support legal services consumers, though it would be necessary to both develop, test and evaluate these techniques before they can be made widely available to consumers”.

Valuable techniques the regulators could adopt included checklists “that cover key aspects of legal situations… and take account of key uncertainties that might otherwise be neglected e.g. likelihood of winning a compensation case”. Equally, ‘decision trees’ that helped people identify “choice points” could help them “focus on all the factors in a legal episode along with the key risks and likely outcomes”.

However, there was no evidence that ‘just in case’ interventions involving education for future events “actually improve legal decisions taken later”.

Prof Maule advised that regulators and others should carry out further research into “legal services consumers’ decision making needs”, trial a variety of ‘just in time’ interventions, perhaps online, on DVD, or in printed form, and also test a number of ‘just in case’ interventions.

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