Lawyers “not listening” to ethnic minority clients

Chambers: Firms and regulators need to raise the bar for these consumers

Many ethnic minority consumers of legal services do not feel they are being listened to or understood by their lawyers, research for the Legal Services Consumers Panel (LSCP) has found.

Sarah Chambers, chair of the LSCP, said service shortcomings were “felt more acutely” by ethnic minority consumers and called on regulators and the profession to work together to improve the situation.

The qualitative study by MEL Research followed the results of the panel’s 2022 tracker survey of 3,500 adults.

This found that ethnic minority consumers were less likely to feel things were communicated in an easy-to-understand way (72% compared to 85% for White consumers), were less satisfied with the outcome achieved (78% compared to 89%), and less likely to trust law firms (61% compared to 71%).

The latest study followed detailed engagement with 13 consumers of employment or family law services in the past two years. The panel said they were carefully chosen and that the small number helped to “colour in” the quantitative findings; it hoped the research would spark further investigations from bodies that had more resources than the LSCP.

MEL said that, for some ethnic minority consumers, their case “was not felt to be a priority” and lawyers showed “a lack of empathy/understanding” of their issues and needs.

This was in part driven by “cultural and language barriers”, which had “the potential to create distance” between consumer and lawyer.

“In addition, the overuse of legal jargon could result in ethnic minority consumers feeling alienated. There was a desire for more open and plain English to be used within communications.”

Many consumers said there should be more support in bridging the cultural gaps in the form of a support worker, liaison or ‘buddy’.

One Caribbean woman said: “I wanted to feel listened to, I wanted to feel like someone understood my situation and wanted to help but instead it felt like I was a number, and speed rather than anything else was the priority.”

Researchers said ethnic minority men generally felt the most confident throughout the process.

One Indian man said: “The process was quite pleasant in that they were taking notes, making calls, and following up with all parties. I felt that I was being considered as a client rather than profit.”

Some consumers were happy about the service they received, describing their law firm as “very professional”, especially when detailed knowledge of the case was demonstrated.

One mixed race (White/Black African) man said: “What particularly impressed me was the fact that I didn’t have to think about ringing the firm for any updates, they kept me up to date on a regular basis! That is pretty rare and I appreciated that!”

Researchers said “proactiveness and openness of communication and clarity of information sent and received came through as the most positive aspects of the legal services experience”.

Consumers said their first impressions of lawyers were “generally positive”, though this was combined with an impression that they were expensive and concerns over trust.

Value for money was the top factor in choosing a lawyer, followed by being a specialist and a recommendation from friends and family.

Ms Chambers said: “While the results of our research are not surprising, they do show that service shortcomings are felt more acutely by consumers from ethnic minority communities. Improving legal services for these groups will undoubtedly enhance service for everyone.

“Ethnic minority legal services consumers have made it clear they want to be communicated with in simple plain language, they need reasons to trust their lawyer and someone who listens to their individual needs.

“Regulators and service providers should work together to raise the bar for serving these consumers.”

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