Solicitors’ firms that adjust the way they present information to disabled people will see business benefits, a major study has found.
They should also make explicit what steps they can offer to accommodate disabled people.
The research, conducted by YouGov for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), said that “making adjustments to how information is presented to disabled people has the dual benefit of improving the experience for the service user themselves and for solicitors’ firms in seeing greater uptake of their services and levels of satisfaction”.
It said disabled people “would like solicitors to understand that disability is a highly personalised experience and the impacts of a disability can change over time. A personalised service is highly valued”.
While 59% of disabled people said they experienced at least one legal issue in the last four years, only a third instructed a solicitor – the same proportion as did not have any professional help at all. Advice services (17%) and charities (11%) were the other main sources of advice.
The survey found a high degree of satisfaction with solicitors among the disabled once retained, but they faced multiple barriers getting to that point, in particular the many people with less-visible disabilities, such as not being asked what reasonable adjustments law firms could offer to make sure their services were more accessible.
YouGov surveyed over 3,500 disabled people through a combination of online surveys and forums, and personal interviews. It also held a workshop for disability groups and reviewed relevant literature.
The work followed the 2016 Competition and Markets Authority report, which called for greater transparency in legal services.
Solicitors have both statutory and professional conduct obligations not to discriminate against disabled people and make reasonable adjustments to accommodate them. Research has shown that disabled people tend to have greater legal needs than less vulnerable groups.
Citizen’s Advice’s guidance on the sort of adjustments reasonable for a solicitor’s firm to make includes offering to visit clients at home, for instance for those with severe agoraphobia. It said: “Normally, they only make appointments at the office. The solicitor provides you with an extra service under their duty to provide reasonable adjustments.”
The research included a test where over 1,200 disabled people chose between two hypothetical solicitor’s websites. One was an ‘adapted’ version and mentioned specific features on offer aimed at disabled clients. A further 1,000 people were presented with alternative layouts of complaints information along similar lines.
Views canvassed included those from a range of different types and severities of disability.
Findings suggesting the profession still had more to do included that three-quarters of firms did not proactively raise the possibility of making reasonable adjustments.
Barriers to accessing legal help included unhelpful staff and the disabled person’s own lack of confidence.
The researchers said that among key themes to emerge was the ease of navigating a firm’s website and having staff trained specifically in helping disabled people to speak to if necessary.
Some respondents mentioned limiting the use of jargon and presenting text in plain language, so as to be less daunting, as well as delivering it in a variety of accessible formats, such as digital audio.
Benefits of presenting information in a disability-friendly way were found to be both in terms of the satisfaction of service users and greater uptake of services.
Fewer than one in ten of the UK’s more than 10 million disabled people use wheelchairs, whereas some one in four has stamina, fatigue or breathing difficulties and a quarter have mental impairments – so-called ‘invisible’ disabilities.
Overarching recommendations of the report were that solicitors’ firms should proactively ask all customers at initial contact and at intervals thereafter whether they needed reasonable adjustments.
It said: “Early identification and understanding of needs is very important to creating a positive experience for disabled people. Professional service providers need to recognise that disabled people often have multiple, complex and varying needs.”
Practical recommendations for change included that firms provided images of the office’s interior and exterior to ease anxieties about access in advance of a visit, and mentioning such things as disabled-friendly accreditations, and facilities such as step-free access, lifts, and nearby parking spaces.
Other findings included that people with less-visible impairments, such as mental health or learning and social disabilities, faced a more challenging experience in accessing legal services.
Respondents felt other customer-facing service providers, for instance banks and airlines, were more proactive about asking about necessary adjustments than the legal industry.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: “All solicitors will recognise that disabled people often have… needs that may not be immediately obvious. Accessing legal services can be complex enough without facing such added challenges, which is why it is so important that firms do all they reasonably can to help people overcome any difficulties.
“This research found that while some firms are clearly good at this, others have more to do. The insights should help firms to make the changes needed to support hundreds of thousands of people to access professional legal support when they need it.”