A third of consumers are now accessing legal services online while telephone-based services are declining, new research has found.
However, the proportion shopping around is still relatively low, having increased marginally to 28% this year, according to the annual tracker survey by the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP).
This is despite the transparency measures introduced last December, requiring firms to publish prices on their websites in relation to various services.
The satisfaction rate for legal services generally remained at last year’s record high of 84% and was even higher for certain services, such as will writing (94%).
The LSCP said researchers spoke to 3,589 people who had used legal services in the last two years.
The proportion of consumers using online services has grown steadily over the eight years of the survey, rising from 30% to 33% in the past 12 months. But it fell for telephone users (from 14% to 12%), while the figure for those receiving face-to-face advice was a shade lower at 45%.
Satisfaction levels depended on the type of work carried out, with face-to-face advice usually leading the way.
For conveyancing, the vast majority of consumers (95%) were satisfied with the service when delivered face-to-face, followed by online (79%) and by telephone (74%).
For probate, the pattern was similar, for will writing the online and telephone-based approaches were equally popular (at 90%), while for powers of attorney online services just topped the table on 93%.
The proportion of ‘silent sufferers’ – consumers who are dissatisfied with the service received but do nothing about it – increased by 2% to 37% this year, but was still much lower than that record level of almost 50% in 2017.
Despite the low level of shopping around at 28%, most consumers (56%) said they found it easy to make comparisons between providers, a rise of 2% on last year.
Younger consumers were more likely than older consumers to report that they shopped around, with 39% of 18-34 year olds doing so in comparison to 25% of those aged 55+. Those looking for conveyancing, will writing and family services were most likely to shop around.
When choosing a provider, reputation was the still most important factor for consumers (79%), followed by price (72%), specialist knowledge, having a local office and being convenient to access, and speed. The use of fixed fees by consumers fell slightly but was still above the half-way mark at 51%.
By far the biggest group of consumers (62%) found out the price of services by speaking to someone on the telephone, compared to only 7% who saw it published on a website.
Researchers said that most of the legal regulators had now introduced rules on the publication of prices online, following the recommendations of the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). “We expect to begin to see the full effects of these changes next year,” the survey said.
In a finding which appeared to conflict with the general picture presented by the survey, the LSCP said the proportion of consumers finding it easy to compare providers on price plunged from 58% last year to 38% in 2019.
However, researchers also said there had been “an increase in those saying they do see the type of information recommended by the CMA when shopping around for a provider”, with the proportion reporting this rising from 35% in 2018 to 40%.
“Those using conveyancing are less likely to see information when shopping around than those who use a will-writing, a power of attorney or a probate service.”
Perceptions of value for money remained relatively high, with 63% saying the overall service and advice provided was good value for money, compared to just 9% saying it was poor. Satisfaction with value for money was highest amongst those using a will writing service (76%) and lowest for consumer issues (49%) and family matters (50%).
Consumers were most willing to interact with providers through artificial intelligence (AI) when carrying out administrative tasks, such as changing account details or purchasing a service they had already bought before.
The biggest barriers were not finding AI-based systems user-friendly, concerns over the security of their data and a lack of trust in AI-based technology.
Sarah Chambers, chair of the LSCP, said: “I’m pleased to see a consistent uptake of services delivered online and that consumer satisfaction with legal services, including online services, is high.
“The uptake of new technology is a real opportunity to mitigate some of the gaps in access to justice caused by the severe decline in public and charitable funding streams.
“Regulators should also continue to ensure that the CMA’s recommendations on price and quality are implemented thoroughly by providers, as evidence so far suggests that not much has changed in these areas.”
Dr Helen Phillips, chair of the Legal Services Board, commented: “We are committed to ensuring access to justice for all. Clearly, there continues to be a need to ensure better information is available for consumers in relation to price, quality, redress and regulation.
“This is vital to increasing competition in the legal services market place and to helping people make better informed choices. We will continue to monitor the actions being taken by regulators to improve transparency for consumers.
“Technology is playing a greater role in the delivery of services to consumers and this will grow in the coming years, so we are looking at how we help regulators develop their approaches to regulating the use of technology.
“Promoting responsible technological innovation that earns the public’s trust will help to widen access to services and improve customer satisfaction.”
Meanwhile, in newly published findings promoting the Legal Access Challenge, organiser Nesta Challenges said two-fifths of small and medium businesses in England and Wales believe legal advice is reserved for big businesses or those that can afford it.
It said some 43% of small businesses owners and self-employed people questioned agreed that the legal advice sector was not set up for them – a stronger perception than in the wider population, where the figure was 32%.
The vast majority (79%) of the small and medium business owners called for it to be easier for people to check whether a problem they were experiencing could be resolved through the legal system.
Nesta also identified “a strong willingness” among the self-employed and small business owners to embrace digital services to help with a legal problem (45%).