New research commissioned by the Legal Services Board (LSB) to inform the development of a new strategy for legal services has highlighted key priorities the public say should be addressed to widen access to legal services and maintain high standards.
Participants in the study said there should be a greater focus on lawyers’ competence, public legal education, and access to justice for those on low and middle incomes. They also prioritised improving the diversity of the legal profession, enabling people who need legal advice to make comparisons between law firms, improving experiences for the most vulnerable in society, and reviewing the list of reserved legal activities.
41 members of the public from diverse backgrounds across England and Wales took part in the study.
The LSB has stated that it wants to understand the needs and priorities of members of the public in relation to the provision of legal services.
In the research, participants recognised that priorities are connected, for example, changing the way people become qualified to be lawyers could also increase diversity. However, three themes arose repeatedly in participants’ perceptions of lawyers and legal services:
- Cost of legal services
- All participants felt that legal services were expensive. For some, cost had prohibited them accessing legal services when they had legal issues in the past. They saw legal advice at best as a high-risk investment, and at worst as accessible only to the well-off.
- Quality of services
- Most participants who had used legal issues described their experience in neutral or positive terms. However, several had experienced poor service or quality, which coloured their perceptions of the profession. When participants learned that not all legal activities were regulated and that lawyers do not have regular external checks on their competence, they became more wary of legal services.
- Public understanding of legal issues
- Participants talked about their own lack of understanding/comprehension of the law, legal issues, and the legal process.
These issues of cost, competence and comprehension led to an undercurrent of anxiety (and, for some, distrust) in using legal services. This was compounded by the fact that it was hard for members of the public to judge the competence of legal professionals, and that they often had a lot to lose when they experienced legal issues. As a result, people felt vulnerable when they experienced a legal issue or needed to use legal services.
Dr Helen Phillips, Chair of the Legal Services Board, said:
“The Legal Services Board is developing a new strategy for the sector aimed at putting consumers’ needs at the heart its decision making, ensuring legal services work better for everyone in society. This research has identified some key areas for us and others to address if we are to build public trust and confidence.
“People feel vulnerable when they need legal advice, and there are concerns that those on lower incomes struggle to get legal help. Better public understanding of the law and legal issues would help people feel more confident when navigating the legal system.
“The responsible use of technology also has the potential to make a real contribution to increasing access to justice. However, we must be careful that the increased use of technology does not leave some people disadvantaged and unable to access legal support, especially the most vulnerable.
“Consumers would be empowered further if they were able to assess the quality of legal services more easily and compare providers. It is also important for public confidence that lawyers demonstrate their competence throughout their careers and not just at the start when they qualify.
“All these valuable insights will help shape our strategy for the profession.”
The report is available on the Legal Services Board’s website.