The continued rise in the cost of legal services at a time when consumer wealth has fallen could be putting people off seeking legal advice, new research has suggested.
The Legal Services Board (LSB) report found evidence that legal fees have risen at or above the consumer prices index (CPI) over the past five years, while at the same time more consumers are going ahead without lawyers in areas such as probate and trademark applications.
“A range of research between 2007/8 and 2010/11 has repeatedly reported a general perception that legal services are expensive and unaffordable, from both private individual and small business consumers… Combined with a reduction in consumer wealth driven by CPI inflation, these perceptions could be driving lower levels of access,” it said.
The findings came in an interim baseline report on the market impact of the Legal Services Act 2007, which brings together data from a wide range of sources to look at how the market has changed over the five years since the Act was passed. Once finalised in October, it will become an annual publication as part of the tools to evaluate the impact of the reforms.
The report acknowledges that in some areas the data
is incomplete or insufficient to draw more than tentative conclusions – for example, the level of complaints is being used as a proxy for the quality of legal services – and identifies 60 pieces of work from a range of sources over the next year that will help fill gaps in information.
The findings over cost contrasted with indicators that showed consumers seeing greater value for money in legal services they purchased, but the LSB pointed out that this did not necessarily mean they received a good service as they were unable to judge it.
“It is difficult to conclude with any confidence that the quality of legal services has improved over the 2008/9-2010/11 period,” the report said. “While consumers report high levels of satisfaction with legal services provided, and records show falling levels of complaints for barristers, legal executives and licensed conveyancers, suggesting improved levels of quality, there is a mixed picture for solicitors.
“The number of complaints for solicitors rose at a greater rate than the proportional increase in numbers of solicitors between 2004/5-2008/9, and where we have data the seriousness of service failures appears to be increasing. This points to falling levels of quality. Rising complaint volumes against a background of falling demand also points to a falling level of quality.”
The report found indications of falling demand for legal services across the majority of areas, with growth in demand in some pockets, such as criminal trials, employment tribunals and business dispute resolution away from litigation.