The Legal Services Board has published its final report ‘Understanding consumer needs from legal information sources’. The report was commissioned to look at the types of information consumers would like to help them address the legal issues they face, and how the internet can provide support.
The research found that consumer confidence around engaging with the legal services market, and the decisions needed to do so, is low. It is suggested that this reflects a number of familiar issues. Firstly, most consumers will only use a solicitor rarely, and so don’t build up experience and confidence in making those decisions. Secondly, the legal sector can be seen as inaccessible to consumers with the language used described as jargon and legalese. Thirdly, in many situations consumers will only look for legal advice because they have to, where all other non-legal options have been exhausted.
In other business areas, such as travel booking or insurance, the internet has helped democratise markets, increasing consumer confidence and knowledge, but this does not seem to have happened with legal services yet. As a result, consumers’ engagement with legal services was seen as much less empowered and much less informed.
Relatively few consumers though relied on online sources to help gain reassurance or information in relation to legal services. It was felt that for those who did look online, searches often brought too much information and choice. Among consumers there was a common view that the law is very precise and therefore the risks involved in trying to build up your own knowledge on the internet was too great. This contrasts with health issues, where NHS Direct is relied on foe professional advice online.
The report shows that although consumers were keen on the idea of a website that could provide legal information, help, support and advice. It was felt that this website could offer:
– A reliable, independent and trustworthy one-stop shop for legal information
– A basic level of information which consumers could use to make more confident decisions, and have more informed discussions with legal advisors
– Information about more sensitive legal issues such as family law and divorce, which could be accessed by consumers without needing to discuss them in person
– Help with how to choose a good solicitor
– The ability for consumers to save money, by not needing to see a legal advisor unnecessarily
The main concern noted by consumers in the report is that a website like this would be run on a commercial basis, and therefore could be biased. Consumers were also uneasy at the possibility of being swamped by adverts for solicitors, and were not very willing to enter personal details on to the site.
It was stated that there needs to be a balance between directly providing information, and signposting consumers to other sources. Too much signposting would defeat the point of a website as a first point of call.
Consumers felt most value in using the internet was in providing and linking to sources of information, advice and guidance, rather than in the identification of problems.
Stakeholders who took part in the research felt that since consumer knowledge around legal issues was low, any online service that helps inform consumers around the important legal decisions they face is in principle a good thing. However, a few issues were raised including:
– Some stakeholders felt that existing websites such as Advice Now and Advice Guide already offer online legal advice
– Stakeholders saw less value in the identification of possible legal problems, and more value in helping to resolve existing issues
– Those consumers who most need legal help, such as those with lower incomes, who don’t speak English, or who do not have proper accommodation, would be unlikely to use an online service
– As cuts are being made in legal aid and other support services, developing a web service may be a low priority
Alex Roy, Head of Development and Research at the LSB commented:
“If legal advice is to become more accessible and, by implication, more affordable then legal services must engage more constructively with alternative forms of distribution beyond the traditional.
“Expanding access to justice must also reach beyond simply looking for new lower cost ways to deliver legal advice. It must empower consumers to help them become more able to identify and address the legal problems they face. This is not a question of expecting the consumer to play the role of a legal advisor, rather helping the consumer become a more intelligent and active customer of legal services.
“We believe that the Internet will in future provide a valuable resource for consumers looking to engage with legal services. We hope that this report will provide an addition to the evidence base to help this development.”
Today’s Conveyancer — bringing you the latest conveyancing news and updates