The largest legal needs survey ever run in England and Wales shows what a difference professional advice and ‘legal confidence’ among consumers makes to the outcome of their matters.
It found that a “significant proportion” of people do not seek professional help for their problems and are more likely to get worse outcomes as a result.
Just under two-thirds of the 28,000 people surveyed by YouGov had faced at least one of 34 specific legal issues – ranging from the simple, such as challenging a parking ticket, to the complex – during the past four years.
The headline findings of the joint Legal Services Board (LSB) and Law Society project were revealed yesterday at a meeting organised at Parliament by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Public Legal Education and Pro Bono and chaired by the group’s co-chair, Conservative MP and barrister Alex Chalk.
The detailed results should be published next month and will be used to inform public legal education (PLE) initiatives; the LSB has recently started focusing  on what it should be doing on PLE.
Though many of the results were unsurprising in light of previous findings, the size of the sample was aimed at providing a solid evidence base from which action could be taken.
The research is also the first to use guidance issued earlier this year  by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on creating legal needs surveys.
Tom May, research manager at the LSB, told the event that this provided standardised measures of legal capability, including legal confidence, rather than self-reported scores.
The YouGov research found that three-quarters of those with a legal issue faced a dispute, rather than a non-contentious matter.
Of those, around half sought professional help and Mr May said these people were “significantly more likely to get outcome that they consider fair and the same as they hoped for”.
Two-thirds of those who had professional help thought they had a fair outcome, compared to 54% who, for whatever reason, did not.
Just 5% of people who achieved an outcome they thought was fair said that result was worse than they had hoped for, compared to two-thirds who did not get an outcome they thought was fair.
When we overlay this with legal confidence, this is where we start to see that those with lower legal confidence are more likely to get worse outcomes than those with higher levels,” Mr May said.
Some 36% of those polled by YouGov were classed as having low legal confidence, which is defined as how confident a respondent is that they could achieve an outcome that is fair and they would be happy with in specified situations.
However, this group made up 44% of those who did not seek legal help for their problem, half of those who did not get an outcome they thought was fair, of 52% of those who had outcomes that were worse than they hoped for.
Those on lower household incomes were more likely to have lower confidence – which Mr May indicated was not surprising – “but even roughly a quarter of those in the top band of household incomes still measured as having low confidence”.
There were similar levels of low confidence among different age groups – although it dropped slightly for those over 65 – while women were more likely to have slightly lower confidence than men.
“There’s not one distinct, tight group of people that have low confidence that would be easy to address,” Mr May said.
Those with low legal confidence were significantly more likely to say did not understand their rights and responsibilities – 56% as against the overall figure of 36% – while over half found it difficult to get suggestions on where to go for legal help.
The results also showed their difficulty with searching for services, prices and reviews – “all these things around being an active consumer, they struggle with,” Mr May said.
Some 56% did not check whether the provider they were looking at was regulated and, even if they did, Sarah Chambers, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, said the findings were not surprising, but were “quite depressing”.
She told the event: “What is most depressing is that they are not surprising. We have seen these problems for some years, and seen them getting worse for some time, and not an awful lot seems to have been done to tackle them in recent years.”
Mr May said a proportion did not fully appreciate what that might mean to them.
Matthew Hill, the new chief executive of the LSB, observed that “too many” of those people who do not have access to justice belong disproportionately to disadvantaged groups Improving consumer confidence and ability was vital to address this.
He said: “We’ve got a major work programme on PLE at the Legal Services Board with two complementary goals: working with others to establish how regulation might contribute to solutions, including where if at all regulation might have hard-wired some of the problems; and using our convening power to contribute and where appropriate lead a broad conversation about the value of PLE on the back of the evidence base we are developing.”
Michael Smyth, a member of the LSB’s board and former chair of PLE charity Law for Life, suggested from the floor that “many lawyers, if they think about PLE at all, think about it in terms of benign indifference”.
He stressed the importance of “teasing out the difference between PLE and pro bono”.
Mr Chalk emphasised the importance of a co-ordinated approach to PLE.