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“Perception” of high cost discouraging family law clients from going direct to barristers

Macleod: many people facing a family law matter are unable to access appropriate legal advice

There is a “clear perception” among most family law clients that barristers are more expensive than solicitors and other legal services providers, major research commissioned by the Bar Standards Board has found.

The poll of 1,200 people who had used a family lawyer in the past two years also showed little take-up of public access – only 13% used a barrister at all, and just 12% of these contacted the barrister directly – but indicated a growing willingness to consider it in future.

Among those who used a barrister, there was broad satisfaction with the service they received.

A majority of respondents claimed to be aware of public access, although some were confused about the difference between regulated and unregulated advisers like McKenzie Friends.

But the researchers, IRN, attributed the limited use of public access to a number of factors, including that 83% thought that barristers were expensive and certainly more expensive than solicitors.

This was also cited by almost half of those respondents who thought about using a barrister but changed their mind.

IRN, which conducted 50 detailed interviews with clients as well, continued: “Secondly, some individuals only associate a barrister with a court appearance and, at the start of the family law legal process, a client may have no idea if he or she is going to end up in court. This uncertainty about the path of the legal process is mentioned by a number of interviewees.

“Thirdly, the online survey results and many interviewee comments emphasise that there are a significant number of individuals that have embarked on a family law matter with little confidence that they have enough information to make informed decisions in relation to their options for legal advice. Almost half of online survey respondents, for example, stated this.

“In this scenario, it is unlikely that many will make a decision to bypass the traditional legal adviser, ie a solicitor, especially if the solicitor has been recommended, and jump straight to a barrister.”

Satisfaction with the performance of barristers was in line with other surveys of lawyers’ clients, with 79% satisfied or very satisfied. The lowest satisfaction ratings were given for the final fees charged (67%), even though 74% were happy with the clear explanation of the fees involved.

In all, 71% of all those with a family law issue used a solicitor, 13% a barrister and 11% another provider, while 14% did either all or some of the work themselves.

The telephone interviews highlighted that consumers do “very little extensive research” to find a family lawyer, with most using a solicitor recommended by a friend.

Of the 36 out of 50 interviewees referred to a barrister by their solicitor, only four were given a choice of who to instruct.

“The overwhelming majority of clients are satisfied that their first consultation with the barrister gave them what they needed.

“However, some had concerns about the clarity of the explanation of the legal process given by the barrister, particularly the amount of legal jargon used.”

A higher percentage of direct access clients had a fixed-fee option, compared to referred clients, and were also more likely to be asked to provide feedback on their barrister.

Almost all those interviewed were happy with the way their barrister prepared them for court, although a few complained about not being given enough information or a lack of time to explain everything.

Looking ahead, a majority said they would consider using a barrister for legal advice in the future.

Ewen MacLeod, director of policy and strategy at the BSB, commented: “We are pleased that most of the respondents who used a barrister for a family law matter were satisfied with the level of service that they received.

“But our survey also shows that many people facing a family law matter are unable to access appropriate legal advice for a variety of reasons. They may choose to represent themselves in court or turn to unregulated advisers for help.

“Having obtained a more complete picture of the experiences of family law clients via this research, it will help inform our future regulatory response to these important issues.”