Vulnerable family law clients facing debt to access legal advice
SRA report finds consumers struggle to make informed choices about solicitors
Family law consumers are commonly using loans, credit cards, and payment plans to access legal advice as the cuts to legal aid continue to affect the most vulnerable.
While 84 per cent of consumers seeking help are finding a way to pay for legal services, their chosen method can be less sustainable, particularly for cases that become protracted, independent research commissioned by the Solicitors Regulation Authority has found.
Moreover, vulnerable consumers may be involved in more complex cases and, therefore, face increased costs due to longer appointments, greater inputs from solicitors to complete aspects of the process, or more regular communication.
Law firms agreed it was their responsibility to ensure clients are aware of alternative funding options and to be transparent about fee arrangements.
Firms are offering approaches such as unbundling (85 per cent) or fixed fees (88 per cent) to support consumers in paying fees, but the most popular solution was by agreeing a payment plan for the case (93 per cent). However, the latter practice appears to be at the discretion of individual solicitors, rather than representing a wide strategy across firms, and was not openly advertised to consumers.
The introduction of LASPO in April 2013 has seen the number of cases granted legal aid plummet. According to Amnesty’s research, some 925,000 cases were granted legal aid the year before the Act was introduced compared with 497,000 cases the following year – a drop of 46 per cent.
The number of cases in the family courts where both parties are unrepresented (34 per cent) is now double the amount pre-LASPO, according to the Ministry of Justice’s figures for April to June 2016. Cases where both parties benefitted from the input of a lawyer dropped from 40 per cent in 2013 to 27 per cent in the same quarter.
Of the 115 firms that took part in the SRA’s survey, 92 per cent agreed there had been an increase in the number of family law cases where the other party appeared unrepresented, and 49 per cent agreed there has been a decrease in demand for private family law services.
Seventy-five per cent of firms reported having to find alternative ways to reduce costs post-LASPO, suggesting that some innovation may have stemmed from the reforms.
While a large majority (86 per cent) of consumers found it easy to find a family law solicitor, others reported issues with accessing the necessary information to help them make an informed decision on their case, such as confusion over a solicitor’s specialist knowledge, experience, cost, and location of the law firm’s offices.
Firms said they had implemented several strategies to help consumers make an informed choice about which services to access. These included telephone screening systems, trained staff to receive initial calls, longer initial meetings, and free initial sessions.
Just over half (52 per cent) of consumers based their decision about a solicitor on a personal recommendation from friends or family. Only 14 per cent conducted their own research using the internet.
Generally, family law consumers had a positive experience of solicitor provided legal services. Almost half (48 per cent) rated the service as excellent. One in ten rated the service as very poor.
Some of the SRA’s findings echoed those of the Competition and Markets Authority’s long-awaited final report on the legal services market, which said a lack of information on price, quality, and service was preventing consumers from choosing the best option.
The competition watchdog suggested information on price, service, redress, and regulatory status would be good practice. The development of comparison sites and other intermediaries was also called for to allow customers to compare providers.
The SRA called for further work to be undertaken to assess the feasibility of a resource to allow consumer comparisons of legal firms before they are engaged. Similarly, it suggested further work could explore the provision of key information, such as costs, to consumers.
The regulator also recommended that formal training for some solicitors would help address a gap in their knowledge and skill base, particularly when dealing with vulnerable consumers.
Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said: ‘People who need to use family law services are often in particularly vulnerable situations. Situations such as divorce or child custody arrangements are highly emotional and stressful, and the consequences of poor legal services can be life changing.
‘It is important that people can find services that meet their needs and that those services are affordable. This research is a contribution to understanding the current landscape and what more can be done to help.’
Matthew Rogers is a reporter at Solicitors Journal