More information to help consumers select a solicitor, freedom to choose a lawyer under legal expenses insurance, and the regulation of contingency fees are all areas where the profession and the public should work together, a leading consumer champion claimed last week.
Speaking at a Law Society event on bridging the gap between lawyers and consumers, Philip Cullum, deputy chief executive of Consumer Focus, said that while consumers had genuine grounds for concern about how the legal market operates, it is possible to turn this round.
“The advent of the Legal Services Board, the creation of the Legal Ombudsman and the developing stance of the Law Society on key issues are all causes for optimism and a basis for future progress,” he said.
He highlighted these three issues as areas where understanding could be progressed, explaining that consumers and the Law Society shared the view that people should be able to choose their own solicitor rather than be required to select from an insurance company’s panel.
While wills could be another area “where we should work together”, he said “the profession’s positioning on this too often comes across as an entirely self-interested one, perhaps overplaying the extent to which solicitors should be the only option”.
Mr Cullum said the absence of information to help consumers choose between different lawyers was one of the factors that built distrust. But helping people choose between good and bad solicitors “needs to be done in the context of some powerful changes underway in our society”.
Pointing to the success of websites where consumers can share experiences, such as TripAdviser, he said: “The days of worrying about whether consumers have perfect information are over. They’re now grabbing onto anything they can get – so regulators and regulated businesses should be thinking about what they can release to help people.”
As part of this, he told the profession that it is “going to look out of touch unless it changes its stance” opposing the publication of complaints data.
Contingency fees are an example where targeted regulation can build consumer confidence, said Mr Cullum, by ensuring the provision of clear information and a cap on the maximum percentage that can be taken in fees. “Consumers and much of the profession should have a common interest here, in promoting the development of the market in a sustainable way.”
Mr Cullum emphasised that it was wrong to suggest that consumer concerns about lawyers are just a matter of perception. He pointed to the event’s agenda, which said there are “important reasons to believe there is little substance” to negative perceptions about the profession.
He said: “I worry when providers in any sector say that it’s all about perception – the message being that consumers just don’t get what good guys we are, and if we just explain things better, all will be well. Years of doing research which consumers tells me that consumers tend to be rather cleverer than professionals give them credit for and when they worry, there’s usually a good reason.”