Solicitors working pro bono could offer a triage system to people who cannot, or think they cannot, afford a lawyer so that they can understand their options for resolving legal disputes, the Law Society has told the new government.
This could be done via face-to-face one-off appointments, drop-in clinics, telephone advice lines or through a web-interface, it said in its submission, which contains a five-point plan on how to make legal services affordable in a time of legal aid cuts and the Jackson reforms.
While emphasising that pro bono work cannot fill the gap left by legal aid cuts, and calling for some of the cuts to be reversed, the society said: “This model would enable people who can’t afford, or think they can’t afford, a lawyer to receive initial advice about their legal problem.
“It would enable them to make an informed decision about whether they can solve their problem without legal support or whether they require expert legal advice. This might also allow people to determine the likely cost and ‘affordability’ of further legal advice they might seek.”
The Law Society argued that while some legal services are “readily available and competitively priced” – such as conveyancing, will-writing and probate – “regrettably, this is not the case in areas where the issues are complex or contested or where considerable expertise or time is required to deal with problems and the client does not have the resources to pay for that”.
Recent government policy has accentuated the problem, it said, but emphasised that “the costs of using a solicitor at an early stage are low compared with the costs to other parts of society if that advice is not sought”.
The other elements of Chancery Lane’s plan included improving the way courts work – such as reviewing civil procedure in low-value cases – and the courts and lawyers making “intelligent use of technology to provide information and assist decision-making”, but not becoming over-reliant on it.
The society encouraged solicitors working differently through alternative business models and unbundling. But it added: “Unbundling, however, is not a solution to the problem. It works where the litigants concerned are sophisticated and capable of undertaking what may be quite complex work themselves. Where that does not apply, it is essential that access to full advice and support is available.”
It called for changes to funding arrangements, including a return to the recoverability of success fees in conditional fee agreement cases, and that “alternative methods of funding should be encouraged”.
The submission said: “Frequently consumers may not be able to find the up-front costs of litigation but can do so over time. In addition to existing insurance products, there is scope for loan arrangements to be developed to enable legal services be properly funded.”
The final leg of the reforms was introducing ‘polluter pays’ incentives for public bodies to make the right decisions early to save them paying later.