People becoming less likely to seek professional help with legal issues

Kershaw: Level of unmet need demonstrates the size of the potential market

People facing legal problems are becoming less likely to seek professional help and, even when they do, are slowly turning away from solicitors, major new research has found.

The YouGov poll of 17,668 adults also highlighted how consumers are increasingly shopping around for legal advice, and how some believe that the cost-of-living crisis, Brexit or Covid have made their legal problems worse.

The Legal Needs Survey was commissioned by the Legal Services Board and Law Society, repeating an exercise from 2019.

The fieldwork was carried out last year. It asked 12,000 people whether they had experienced one or more of 34 different types of legal issue in the last four years. A further 4,735 were then polled on the ‘low prevalence’ issues to increase the numbers available for analysis and 1,565 people living in Wales to get a better understanding of their needs.

There was a supplementary sample of 500 adults of people (mainly over 65) who were infrequent or non-users of the internet. These were collected via telephone by Kudos Research.

Two-thirds of people within the initial sample reported experiencing a legal issue within the last four years, a two percentage point (PP) increase on 2019.

The most commonly experienced legal issues relate to employment, finance, welfare and benefits (28% of people, down 4pp since 2019), followed by consumer problems (26%) and wills, trusts and probate – up 4pp to 26%.

Property, construction and planning (25%) and conveyancing/residential (18%) issues followed.

There was a 4pp rise in the proportion who experienced a contentious issue, to 57% in 2023, but the survey showed how people tended not to identify them as legal in nature (only 15% did and were more likely than average to have received help with it).

People were more likely to describe their issue as economic or financial (27%), a family or private matter (19%), or bad luck, bureaucratic or health related (16% each).

Similar numbers considered their issue as more serious and less serious (on a scale of one to 10).

In all, 62% of those with legal issues received some form of help, down from 66% in 2019.

Just over half received help from a professional (52%) but this was 3pp lower, while 11% sought help from a non-professional family member or friend. The rest had no assistance.

As in 2019, those with a non-contentious legal issue were more likely to have gone to a professional (68%) than those with a contentious one (48%) – a third of the latter group said their problem was not important enough to seek help from an adviser.

The proportion who reported that they did not need help because they knew enough grew by 3pp to 23%; more positively for lawyers, the proportion who assumed help would be too expensive fell by 8pp to 13%.

The research indicated that shopping around for an adviser is important, with those who did more likely to consider they received value for money. The majority who searched for prices and services found it easy.

While solicitors are still the most frequently used main adviser for contentious issues (19%), this was down 2pp on 2019. Then came doctors (10%) and insurance companies, up 2pp to 8%.

Asked how services could be improved, using plain English was by far the most popular answer (41%), followed by one in seven (14%) saying they would benefit from easy-read information or having the ability to zoom on the provider’s website.

Almost nine in ten (88%) of those with an adviser were satisfied with their service.

Using an internationally recognised methodology, half (51%) of the people with a concluded legal issue were deemed to have had a legal need (i.e. needed support to deal with their issue). The rest did not, primarily because they did not consider their issue to be serious. For non-contentious issues, 28% were estimated to have had a legal need.

One in five (19%) had a met legal need as a result of obtaining adequate professional help, 3pp lower than 2019.

The poll said that 15% believed their issue was caused by inflation/the cost of living and 26% thought this made it worse. The respective figures for Covid were 12% and 23%, and for Brexit 5% and 12%.

Legal Services Board chair Alan Kershaw said: “The level of unmet need demonstrates the size of the market legal providers could tap into. We hope regulators and providers use the insights from this survey to find new opportunities and drive competition.

“Regulation has a vital part to play in creating a legal services market where people can identify that they have a legal issue, easily shop around for support, compare prices, and choose a provider that meets their needs.

“We are pressing forward with our work to ensure that regulators’ efforts to empower people who need legal services are sufficient. If our expectations are not being met, we will not hesitate to act.”

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