The need to extend access to justice to those who cannot afford legal services is “already resulting in less involvement by lawyers in many of the tasks that previously made up their staple diet”, the chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel has said.
Elisabeth Davies also suggested that the emergence of professional McKenzie Friends “may repeat itself in other sections of the market”.
Ms Davies was reflecting on what has happened in the market since the panel’s 2020 report , published last November, which said regulated lawyers should be viewed in the future as “a small part of an increasingly diverse ecosystem”.
Asking whether access to justice is the same as access to a solicitor, Ms Davies said that “consumers are seeking and will continue to seek alternatives to lawyers or use them in different ways. Our research suggests one in five of legal transactions already involve some degree of unbundling, a reflection of the 2020 report’s coverage on ‘self-lawyering’”.
Writing on the panel’s website, she continued: “Our predictions of self-lawyering have met with incredulity among some – the big comparison that’s often made is that we’ll be suggesting patients don’t need doctors next, or that they should operate on themselves.
“No – we don’t foresee patients operating on themselves, but self-management is well established as part of the care programme for those with long-term conditions. So the parallels aren’t as far-fetched as some might think.
“The bottom line? Self-lawyering is already happening to a large degree. The Money Claim Online service issues more claims than any other county court. One automated document provider has 300 templates covering family, wills and probate, landlord and tenant, and much more. These are all situations where lawyers used to provide an end-to-end service but are now absent or playing a smaller role.”
This led to the question of where to draw the line on self-lawyering.
Ms Davies said: “The experience of our research into online tools, focusing on divorce, demonstrates that there appears to be a high degree of self-selection among consumers making rational choices about choosing the online route. For example, people consciously make the online choice thinking it’s the best option for them, and most online divorces are amicable, follow a period of separation – it’s not for everyone but it is for some.
“The consumer interest here lies in resolving the tension between cost and quality; determining when a lawyer is needed and when alternatives can safely suffice. How can we help consumers to make informed decisions about when to use these services and when to seek professional advice? And for providers already offering unbundled services, how are they making the ‘diagnosis’ and working out when to offer and when not to offer unbundled services?
“We worry that vulnerable consumers who lack confidence or who aren’t online will get left behind. Computers cannot replace the human touch in every situation. But the scale of the access to justice deficit mustn’t be underestimated and now is the time to be open to solutions – whether online tools, unbundled services or, dare I say, unregulated providers.”
Ms Davies repeated the 2020 report’s conclusion that the unregulated sector is now an established part of the legal market and “improving access [to justice] will require looking at how the whole system will work in future around consumer need. And this includes the unregulated sector”.
“Everyone has something to say about McKenzie Friends. But this pattern of unregulated providers emerging to fill a gap in demand which lawyers cannot serve – offering a more affordable way for people to resolve their legal issues – may repeat itself in other sections of the market. So what’s the response? It might involve making difficult choices in imperfect circumstances, but this cannot be avoided or ignored. Nor should it be dismissed.”