Regulators pledge data for comparison sites, as panel goes undercover to investigate web advice


Online tools: consumer panel suspects risk to privacy

The Legal Services Consumer Panel has conducted a ‘mystery shopping’ exercise to discover how consumers experience using online legal self-help tools during a divorce.

The undercover activity is part of the panel’s research into unbundled legal services in which people handle their legal needs themselves, including using online advice.

Meanwhile, work by the panel to open up data held by regulators to be used by legal comparison websites took a major step forward yesterday after the Legal Services Board (LSB) said it would hold legal regulators to pledges they made on supplying data in a form that might be used by such sites to help consumers choose between lawyers.

Details of the panel’s investigative techniques emerged in a programme of its work for 2014-15. Among various projects, the panel said it would complete joint research undertaken with the LSB on the consumer experience of online divorce tools.

The underlying driver was explained to be that the panel had concerns about “regulatory boundaries” and “privacy” in connection with online resources. The programme document said: “A significant number of people now handle their legal needs alone or choose an unbundled service package – in other words agreeing with their lawyer that they will do some of the work themselves.

“Technology is… leading to innovation in service delivery. An example is the emergence of online self-help tools, with various levels of lawyer input, which have emerged in a range of areas from wills to tenancy agreements.

“Many consumers are attracted by the wider choice, convenience, speed and cost benefits of such approaches, although we also foresee potential risks such as unclear regulatory boundaries and privacy.”

In a follow-up letter to legal regulators after a roundtable on access to data last month, LSB chief executive Chris Kenny and panel chair Elisabeth Davies asked them to confirm “by Easter” their plans to deliver basic information that comparison sites could use.

The letter pointed out the information that was being sought was already in the public domain, but it needed to be made available in a “reusable format”. It said the regulators had agreed at the roundtable in principle to “making usable data openly available either through the Legal Choices website, or in other ways”.

Accompanying material supplied by the consumer panel said regulators were likely to hold information such as name, address and size of firm, as well as that relating to disciplinary findings and conduct issues. Meanwhile, representative bodies would hold data on gender, practice area, accreditations, and specialisation.

The consumer panel indicated it planned to add to the data available during 2014-15 by “using the freedom of information laws to access data held by public agencies about the performance of lawyers”.

Other activity the panel planned to pursue during 2014-15 included “pushing the Legal Ombudsman” to create a voluntary complaints scheme for will-writing, following the government’s “deeply disappointing” decision not to submit the sector to regulation.

Ms Davies said: “The legal services market is changing in response to a perfect storm of economic, technological and policy changes. We are seeing different types of provider and new ways of delivering legal services. Our challenge is to help the regulators identify and respond to these changes through policies that strike the right balance between improving access to justice and enhancing consumer protection.”

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