The four years since the Legal Services Act have seen “positive changes” for consumers, but many problems persist, the first ever assessment of the reforms has concluded.
The consumer impact report, published today by the Legal Services Consumer Panel, says consumers usually get the outcomes they want from legal services and most are happy with the service they receive – although it points out that they have little experience against which to judge this.
Further, people entering the legal workforce are increasingly representative of the diversity of the general population and “lawyers will soon be working to new rulebooks that are more consumer-friendly and have greater flexibility to respond to a diverse and changing market”.
It adds: “There is also evidence of innovation in the delivery of legal services as traditional and new providers position themselves in readiness for a more liberalised market.”
On the negative side, “too many consumers are still being let down by delays and communication breakdown”, while the high number of complaints about costs has not abated.
Although growing numbers of women and black and minority ethnic individuals are entering the workforce, “they are not progressing to senior roles”.
Overall it identified consumers’ “lack of power” in their dealing with lawyers because they “do not shop around for legal services, cannot find information about the quality of different providers, approach lawyers with trepidation and lack the confidence to complain”.
It said: “This is particularly striking as consumers are increasingly assertive in other parts of the economy, seen in rising levels of switching service providers and their use of online customer feedback tools.”
The report – which will be produced annually – uses a basket of indicators to measures the direction of travel towards the panel‘s vision for the market: responsive services; high-quality advice; a diverse workforce that understands its diverse clients; quick, fair and cost-effective complaints-handling; and where consumers are placed at the heart of regulation.
It said that as the reforms are a long-term project, the mixed story told this year is to be expected.
The report said that although the overall figures are “promising”, they mask significant levels of dissatisfaction with some core elements of service, and some disparity in the experience of clients in Wales or from particular socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds.
“Satisfaction with value for money is also far too low – key to ensuring access to justice. This suggests there is both no room for complacency and scope to raise standards. In addition, elements of the regulatory framework which are invisible to individual consumers – such as regulatory independence and the diversity of the profession – underpin the quality of legal services. Here also there remains much more to do.”
The report said that new entrants counting down to alternative business structures will see these problems as “a commercial opportunity to make legal services more approachable and to deliver services that meet people’s needs”.
Panel chairwoman Dr Dianne Hayter said: “The consumer impact report demonstrates that consumers have benefited in many ways from the Legal Services Act, but there remains much more to achieve before the reforms can be judged a success.
“Consumers are demanding more of businesses across the economy, but find it far harder to exercise their market power when dealing with lawyers. They need a helping hand, such as access to complaints data, in order to play their full part in driving greater competition between firms.”