An unbundled family law service aimed at people who cannot afford to instruct a solicitor has “reached a new market” and delivered very positive results, researchers have found.
The Affordable Advice Service (AAS) blends self-help information and low-cost, fixed-fee unbundled legal advice but funding is required to expand its availability.
Developed by public legal education charity Law for Life in partnership with family lawyers group Resolution, the AAS links readers of the former’s online Advicenow guides to Resolution solicitors for one-off advice at the most important points of the family law process.
Research with Advicenow users found that the majority were not accessing any legal advice because they could not afford traditional legal services or were worried about the unpredictability of costs.
They were also unclear on how to find a good solicitor offering help in a way that would work for them as a litigant in person (LiP).
It ran as a pilot from February 2020 until July 2021, with research finding it had enabled LiPs to save 70% on legal fees and thereafter became a permanent service.
Research into its second year found that half of LiPs said they would not have sought legal advice without the AAS, while a third might not have done.
Most appointments – which can be held face-to-face, by telephone or online – are offered at £120 and three-quarters of users found it very good or good value; a similar proportion said they could not have afforded any more.
Large majorities said AAS helped them feel more confident (90%), helped them decide to do something (90%), helped them make their case better (88%) or reduced their stress (82%).
Some said the service “significantly improved the outcome of their case”; one secured an increase in the sale proceeds of the family home from 25% to 75% after following their solicitor’s advice to hire a barrister.
“In two cases, the solicitor was able to identify serious issues, such as potential coercive control or domestic abuse, and support those LiPs through the process of divorce. This is something that would be impossible for an online information service to identify.”
Users said they valued the opportunity to make informed choices about how to proceed and the likelihood of success when negotiating financial outcomes, such as whether to prioritise assets such as the house over a share of their ex-spouse’s pension.
“In one case, the user decided not to proceed with the divorce as a result of the advice received from the panel solicitor.
“Users also reported that the service helped them cope better with the process, as it created a clear structure for them to follow that mitigated emotions generated by the case.”
There were high levels of satisfaction with the advice received from solicitors, with 82% saying they would approach that solicitor for future family law problems and 39% already planning to see that solicitor again.
Comments from other service users suggested the pandemic had encouraged more people to seek help online, which “changed the way they view that advice in a geographic sense” and made them less likely to prioritise using local solicitors.
“Although the service was intended to offer one-off appointments, several interviewees stated that they had built a rapport with the panel solicitor and returned to them for further appointments, and several instructed the solicitor to complete a specific task not covered by the service, e.g drafting a consent order.”
The AAS was created with funding from the Legal Education Foundation, with the Access to Justice Foundation funding the research.
Law for Life said the AAS needed further investment to expand its capacity, including “a substantial increase in the recruitment of panel solicitors able to provide high-quality legal advice as part of their social responsibility policy”.
The charity said it would like to offer those who could not afford even the low-cost fee a way of having some or all it subsidised and called on the Ministry of Justice to provide public money as a way to head off legal problems that might otherwise emerged later down the line.
The AAS needed a higher profile too, while better support for legally binding agreements was needed. “Lawtech funding for a consent order tool should be sought as a priority,” the research said.
Amanda Finlay, chair of Law for Life, commented: “Litigants in the family courts desperately need affordable, quality legal advice and this innovative, unbundled service provides exactly that.
“Feedback from users and panel solicitors testify to the game-changing nature of the service. Further investment in this vital lifeline would make a difference to so many people.”
Resolution chair Juliet Harvey added: “Resolution is committed to working with government to help more families reach lasting, constructive outcomes. In return, ministers must appreciate the key role legal advice plays in helping achieve this and fund it accordingly.
“By providing separating couples with information on and access to early legal advice, they are better equipped to make choices about important issues like family finances and what arrangements are made for children.
“In order to reduce the demand on the family court and improving outcomes for separating families, Resolution is encouraging government to provide funding and better signposting to the Affordable Advice Service.”