The way legal services are provided needs to change to recognise that a large portion of the population struggles with the law and needs more help with accessing it, a report from the Legal Services Board (LSB) has urged.
The oversight regulator hinted that regulatory action may be needed to make this happen, while also highlighting the potential role of healthcare professionals in signposting people to legal support.
The LSB published its report on legal capability for Justice Week as it continues to build the evidence base to inform approaches to public legal education (PLE), analysing the recently published mega-survey of the legal needs of individuals in England and Wales.
Legal capability is measured in three parts: legal confidence, or a person’s belief that they can personally achieve a fair and positive outcome in legal scenarios; legal self-efficacy, or the extent to which they are sure they can personally handle difficult situations in a legal context; and accessibility of justice, or the degree to which someone thinks the justice system (outside of criminal law) is accessible.
Unsurprisingly, the analysis found that the more people understood their legal rights and had higher legal capability, the more likely they were to seek professional help.
However, it found that over a third of all participants had low levels of self-efficacy and legal confidence, and nearly one in five perceived the justice system as inaccessible.
The LSB did not find a clearly defined group of legally capable people, meaning that, despite expectations to the contrary, a “significant minority” of people with high incomes and education levels also exhibited low legal capability.
However, there were some “broad and significant, albeit subtle, trends”. Those with lower legal capability tended to be women, be younger than 55, have a disability that limits daily life, and have lower household incomes (£32,000 or below).
The data showed no statistically significant differences between respondents based on ethnicity, although the LSB said such a relationship could exist but was masked by other demographic factors.
The analysis highlighted the difficulty that those with lower legal capability have in asking for suggestions on where to go for advice.
With doctors the third most common source of help after family and friends, and lawyers, the LSB suggested that those with lower legal capability were likely to benefit from referrals and signposting arrangements from trusted individuals, such as doctors, pharmacists and nurses, who often have first sight of their problems.
“Programmes, such as health justice partnerships, which enable these trusted individuals to help with referrals, would appear to offer much promise in this respect.”
The LSB also highlighted the importance of transparency in relation to the cost and quality of legal services providers, as those with lower legal capability found it harder to search for the services they needed and in any case often assumed professional advice was too expensive without checking – in part because they found it difficult to find this information.
The LSB concluded: “The journey to resolving a legal issue is often difficult for many people. Each step in resolving a legal issue has a variety of challenges that are difficult and could be easier for many by providing PLE initiatives and legal services, that take account of variability of legal capability of users of legal services.”
There was a “clear statistical relationship” between legal capability and nearly every step in this journey.
It continued: “If we can better design PLE initiatives and legal services in a way that takes account of the wide variation in legal capability, advisers can target scarce resources at more difficult problems where their expertise is needed.
“There are many such information resources, but the quality is variable and there appears to be an awareness gap.
“The regulatory and professional bodies are contributing to helping people choose a lawyer and what to expect when doing so. The legal services sector needs to get better at proving that the interventions they offer work and are valuable.”
The LSB said its research suggested two linked priorities. First was the need to improve at “recognising and taking account of the significant variation in legal capability so that services and interventions are designed accordingly”.
This meant making it easy for people to find information about their legal issue, choose the best route to resolve it, search for the right services, and if necessary complain about a poor service.
“These are all simple goals, but our research shows that this isn’t happening for a significant proportion of people.
“Additionally, we have a statutory responsibility to ensure that the legal sector is increasing public understanding of the citizen’s legal rights and duties. This may require regulatory intervention to ensure that suppliers are delivering more accessible services.”
The second priority was more research to find ways to redesign services and interventions in the legal services sector to make them more accessible to those with lower legal capability.
Allied to this was understanding better what interventions work and their limitations. The LSB has commissioned a review of the effectiveness of PLE initiatives, which will be published in the spring.