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Consumer confusion boosts case for strict controls over unreserved work


Finding a solicitor: word of mouth is still key

New consumer research from the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has strengthened the case for stringent controls of law firms and alternative business structures (ABSs) which seek to hive off unreserved legal work to an unregulated business.

It also found that easy-to-understand charges and a solicitor who remembers their names are what clients would like to see as standard when they visit a law firm, while “hidden extras” are certain to cause complaints.

In-depth interviews with 40 people who had purchased legal services in the last year found they assumed they would be protected if something went wrong, and so they were “surprised and concerned” to discover that some legal services are not regulated. They were unaware of how to tell the difference between a regulated and unregulated provider.

The research, conducted by GfK NOP Social Research, is part of the SRA’s response to a request from the Legal Services Board to justify the separate business rule, which seeks to prevent law firms (and later this year ABSs) from offering unreserved legal activities through a separate, unregulated business. The SRA argues that removing the rule would “significantly increase” the risk to consumers.

The research showed that while most people had a high level of trust in the legal profession and the people working in it, many were unaware about how to complain if something went wrong.

It confirmed the findings of other surveys that word-of-mouth recommendations play a key role in choosing a solicitor, along with evidence of experience and that they specialise in the service the consumer needs. To a lesser extent consumers valued good customer service and a reasonable price; these are often assessed after purchase.

Consumers found it difficult to decide which solicitors have the required experience and qualifications. Having a name with “solicitor” in the title was seen as one indication of a reliable provider, and consumers had confidence in the ability of solicitors to provide legal services.

Knowledge of the legal market was found to be low, with shopping around and doing price comparisons “very rare”. “Consumers of legal services are loyal – they are likely to go back to a previous provider rather than compare prices of services with other providers,” the research said.

A separate report, by Vision One Research, said that value for money, combined with quick and efficient service, came top of the “must have” list when people were seeking legal advice.

SRA policy officer Richard Silver said: “Consumers have strong views about what they expect from a solicitor. They don’t want to be bothered with jargon and detail, they want value, fair treatment and a result with which they are satisfied.

“Solicitors should also give clients opportunities to complain if they are not happy with the service they receive, and provide good information about how to complain. We now want to use this research to help solicitors meet those requirements.”

The SRA is in the process of setting up a dedicated consumer affairs function. To follow-up this research, it is to conduct a quantitative survey to identify specific consumer protection issues that require SRA action. It will also look into the reasons for consumers’ lack of information about the quality of legal services.