There are signs that consumer power is starting to take a grip in the legal services market as more people shop around and demand fixed-fee deals, the Legal Services Consumer Panel reports today.
However, the YouGov survey shows that the wider economic picture is affecting the use of legal services, with 27% of the public using at least one legal service in the last two years, down from 31% in the same survey conducted last year. This affected most areas of consumer law, except crime, immigration, benefits and neighbour disputes, for all of which increases in usage were recorded in 2012.
The panel’s tracker survey, which will inform its second consumer impact report – an annual health check of the Legal Services Act reforms that will be published in July – reported that 22% of consumers now shop around, up from 19% last year, while 58% of privately-paying consumers had a fixed-fee deal. There was evidence that consumers are finding it easier to compare providers.
This led to satisfaction with value for money rising marginally from 56% in 2011 to 58% in 2012. However, satisfaction with individual elements of customer service fell slightly, most notably in relation to clarity of information about costs, dropping from just under 80% to 70%. And dissatisfied consumers are more likely to do nothing – this saw a big increase from 35% in 2011 to 42% in 2012.
Recommendation or previous use were, as usual, the main ways consumers chose a lawyer (33%), followed by referral from a third party (15%), online search (9%) and ‘saw local offices’ (7%) – only 22% of consumers shopped around.
Face-to-face was the main way the service was delivered (42%), followed by e-mail/Internet (20%), telephone (19%) and post (16%). However, there were significant variations depending on the area of law, with personal injury and conveyancing services far more likely to be provided remotely than the average.
The survey recorded a general fall in trust across the professions, including the law, with 43% of the public saying they trusted lawyers, putting them behind doctors and teachers but marginally ahead of accountants.
Panel chair Elisabeth Davies said: “It’s good to see signs of consumers starting to use their buying muscle, although this needs to be just the beginning of a major power shift. Consumers clearly want fixed-fee deals, especially in tough times – and increasingly they are shopping around to get better value for money.
“It’s concerning that service standards are slipping, yet more and more dissatisfied consumers do nothing about the treatment they’ve received. The difficult economic climate is no excuse for lawyers to cut corners, but there’s also a need for regulators to make it easier for consumers who get a poor service to raise their concerns with providers.”