The vast majority of family law firms are offering alternative ways to pay legal fees post-LASPO – such as unbundling and monthly payment plans – meaning that more than eight out of 10 clients were able to find the money themselves rather than rely on friends and family, a survey has revealed.
The findings appeared in research published today by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) into the experiences of potentially vulnerable people using family law services.
The survey, by Ecorys – a long-established European research company – included interviews with 115 firms and 117 members of the public, plus in-depth interviews with 16 firms and 23 clients.
More than nine out of 10 firms surveyed reported there had been an increase in people representing themselves since LASPO. But, reflecting the acute importance of issues involved in family cases, hardly any of the consumers surveyed said they did not access a solicitor at all.
In positive findings, it found law firms were successfully helping people make choices about the services they needed, for example by training staff to receive initial calls. Less positive was that it was difficult for clients to access information on costs and a solicitor’s experience.
Researchers found that 85% of firms offered unbundled services and 88% fixed fees. The most popular solution to help customers having difficulty paying for legal support was agreeing a (typically monthly) payment plan (93%). But the plans tended to be at the discretion of individual solicitors rather than a firm-wide strategy.
Although over a quarter of the consumers surveyed availed themselves of unbundled services – such as self-representation in court while the solicitor conducted the initial part of the case, including negotiating with the other party, and preparing documents or filing proceedings – firms themselves pointed to problems with unbundling in a family law context.
Some four in five firms said unbundling caused problems for cases and just over half said it caused issues for the firm. Many felt it was risky as there was potentially nobody with legal expertise having an overview of the case. However, firms that had successfully provided unbundling were more positive about its benefits.
Just under two-thirds of consumers in the survey (64%) said their solicitor’s costs were affordable. But the researchers stressed the high stakes nature of family law as a reason underlying this finding.
While 84% were able to find the money to pay their solicitor and 85% said cost was not a hindrance to the continuation of their case, almost half regarded the bill as more than they expected.
The researchers linked this with limited up-front information available to consumers when choosing a solicitor, saying it raised “issues around the transparency of costs for consumers”.
In other findings, almost six in 10 firms reported that they offered a low-cost alternative of having work undertaken by paralegals or less-experienced fee-earners who worked at a lower charge-out rate. But many consumers did not appear to be aware of this practice.
Almost half of consumers said the service they received from family law solicitors was “excellent”, while just one in 10 said it was “very poor”.
Paul Philip, the SRA’s chief executive, said: “People who need to use family law services are often in particularly vulnerable situations. Situations such as divorce or child custody arrangements are highly emotional and stressful, and the consequences of poor legal services can be life changing.
“It is important that people can find services that meet their needs and that those services are affordable. This research is a contribution to understanding the current landscape and what more can be done to help.”