The Internet revolution has “yet to reach legal services”, new research has found, meaning consumers jump at the idea of an ‘official’ online resource to help them resolve their legal issues.
The study for the Legal Services Board (LSB) – involving 10 focus groups – found that levels of consumer confidence and knowledge are low when it comes to addressing legal issues and that such help as is currently available online can actually make things wose.
Outside of those areas where consumers invariably use a solicitor – such as conveyancing, wills and divorce – approaching a solicitor or initiating other options was generally seen as a reluctant choice to be avoided where possible, the report by Vanilla Research said. Issues such as redundancy and pay disputes, complaints against a landlord and problems with neighbours were not seen as requiring a solicitor.
It said: “A fear of escalating the problem, the expense involved with solicitors, a sense that engaging a solicitor is often an open-ended, uncontrolled commitment, and a belief that other options would often simply be more effective at resolving the issue, all contributed to consumers usually saying they would look to explore other options rather than ‘legal’ ones to resolve the issue.
“Solicitors were often seen by consumers as a last resort or a reluctant choice, an expense to be avoided wherever possible rather than a service to be used for your own benefit.”
The report said that while in many areas of life the Internet has helped empower consumers, help them make more informed decisions and open up access to products and services, “this revolution… at least on the evidence of our group discussions, had yet to reach legal services… The Internet was found to be far less help than consumers have come to expect”. It said consumers deem legal services to be a complex area where you cannot ‘do it yourself’.
Relatively few consumers relied on online sources to help gain reassurance or information on legal matters. Among those that did look online, searches often resulted in too much information and choice; there was a common view that the law is very precise, can turn on the smallest detail, and therefore the risks involved in trying to build up your own knowledge based on the “wild west” of the Internet was too great.
There was strong support for an NHS Direct or Tripadvisor-style website that could help provide consumers with legal information, support and advice – no one in the groups mentioned the websites run by the Advice Services Alliance and by Citizen’s Advice.
There was opposition to such a website being run on a commerical basis, and to it focusing too much on signposting consumers to other sources, rather than providing help. Though the LSB may have the independence and perceived legal expertise needed to provide such a site, “the lack of awareness of its name and role would pose problems”.
There was support from stakeholders too, Vanilla reported, with the caveat that those consumers most in need of legal support and help – such as the poor and those without English as a first language – were the least likely to use such an online service, and that developing it is “an arguable priority for funding” in a time of austerity.
Alex Roy, the LSB’s head of development and research, said: “We commissioned this research to explore whether, and how, consumers would see benefits in online support to help them access legal services. It demonstrates again the difficulty that consumers have engaging with legal services, but it also offers hope that well-designed online sites could really improve consumers’ ability to find the legal services that meet their needs.
“Over the coming year we will be talking to the government, charities and others involved in providing existing online support sites to explore how the lessons learned from this research can be used to help develop better online tools for consumers.”