Lawyers cut out by consumers not realising their problems are ‘legal’, survey finds

High street: legal education, and wider and more accessible legal services required

Consumers do not realise that many of the problems they face are ‘legal’ and so do not consider approaching a lawyer for help, new research has revealed.

The survey carried out by the Legal Services Research Centre (part of the Legal Services Commission) and University College London is in a series of essays from various commentators published by the Legal Services Board until the title “The future of the legal services sector – emerging thinking”.

The survey of 1,031 people aimed to get behind the findings of previous ‘legal needs’ surveys, which have until now stopped at identifying the kinds of problems consumers approach lawyers about, by asking why this is.

The researchers found: “Overall, whereas respondents said they would seek help from a lawyer in relation to 44% of problems characterised as ‘legal’, the same was true of only 11% of problems not characterised as such.”

The survey found that the percentage of respondents who said they would seek help from the broader advice sector was similar overall, however problems were characterised. The researchers said this demonstrated the importance of the advice sector to the accessibility of legal services.

The researchers concluded: “Although we live in a law-thick world, we may not necessarily perceive the world in this way, and this impacts upon patterns of access to legal services. Why people characterise some problems as legal, but not others, is therefore a matter of considerable interest, with important policy implications. To the extent characterisation is linked to people’s understanding of the law, it raises questions around public legal education. To the extent it is linked to problem severity, or the stage that problems have reached, it raises questions around the accuracy of people’s cost-benefit assessments and the appropriateness of characterisations. To the extent it is linked to the supply of traditional legal services, it raises questions around the functioning of the legal services market.”

An essay by Jon Trigg, formerly of leading non-lawyer advice provider A4e, argued that new entrants to the legal market will mean “more quality, capacity and consumer choice” and that offering integrated and accessible one-stop legal services – the concept of consumers being able to buy legal services alongside their weekly shop – “will ultimately drive down costs for consumers and government”.

He added: “A4e is acutely aware of the advantages of integrating services because our experiences have informed us that people have clusters of problems which requiring a joining-up of services. The Community Legal Advice telephone advice service has demonstrated that high-quality advice can be provided across social welfare law (including emotive areas such as family law) through a £50 hourly rate.” He also pointed towards the Community Legal Advice Centres in Leicester and Hull, which offer a one-stop shop approach.

In her essay, Carolyn Regan, former chief executive of Legal Services Commission, argued that competition introduced by the Legal Services Act would encourage innovation and ensure greater efficiency.

She added: “Moving in the same direction as other services for the public, [legal aid services] must be more flexible, provided in a different ways, with many more partnerships across different professions. People expect to have a range of easily-accessible information about their options which does not rely exclusively on face-to-face advice. They are interested less in how this achieved, than the quality and convenience of the service they receive. Clients and their advisors need to be able to ring helplines and go to websites for clear and accessible information about rights, responsibilities and solutions, including mediation, a legal problem diagnostic service, online tools, for example, in drafting legal documents, incorporating the necessary support for those less able to use these tools themselves.

“In family law, for example, there could be the facility to make appointments directly with family counsellors and mediators via the same website that gives you access to legal services. These facilities must anticipate and provide the necessary links with other providers (public, private and not for profit), such as those that help find accommodation, advise on benefits etc.”

The essays also cover issues such as training lawyers of the future, legal process outsourcing, the prospects for external investment (written by Tony Williams of Jomati, a Legal Futures Associate) and the rewards of being a ‘virtual’ law firm.

Download the papers from the Legal Services Board here.

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