Access to legal services
Why this risk matters
- It is important that people and businesses have access to good quality legal services when they need legal help. If they cannot access this support, it can have a significant impact on them and hinder the proper administration of justice.
- The affordability of services and lack of information, especially about prices and the services solicitors and firms offer, are the two main barriers to accessing legal services.
- Many people and small businesses do not use a solicitor or barrister for their legal needs. Unresolved legal problems can lead to financial and lifestyle costs. Over the last 18 months, 32% of people had at least one legal need, such as buying a property or family problems. And 35% of those with a legal need tried to resolve it without any professional help. Half of small businesses also looked to resolve their legal needs without legal help.
- People want to know the price and have some indication of quality. 28% of people do not use a solicitor because they assume that they will be too expensive. And over 60% of small businesses said that cost stops them from using a solicitor.
- Our research and the Legal Service Board’s (LSB) research found that small businesses are more likely to use a solicitor when prices are visible online. But only 18% of law firms have prices on their website.
- For those that do take professional advice, 27% of people and 22% of small businesses did research before choosing their legal service provider.
- More people now expect fixed fees and online delivery of services. Legal services delivered by email or online has increased from 21% in 2012 to 30% in 2018. Face-to-face services have remained stable over the past three years, currently used by 46% of people, and there is still a strong preference for local services.
- The legal services market is steadily growing and diversifying, which is leading to greater choice for people and small businesses. For example, alternative business structures are more likely to innovate than other firms and increased competition should lead to more choice and potentially reduced cost. And multidisciplinary practices may appeal to small businesses so that they can find a variety of professional services under one roof. There is a steady increase in unbundled legal services where people and businesses ask solicitors to help them with part of the work.
What firms can do
- To address the barriers to accessing legal services, solicitors and firms can:
- share more information about their services and prices online, and with relevant organisations that support people with legal needs, such as their local Age UK and Citizen’s Advice, so it will reach a wide variety of people
- keep information clear and concise so it is easy to understand
- help people understand services and prices by training staff that deal with enquiries from the public
- tell people about the joint regulators’ Legal Choices website, which offers information on finding the legal help that meets their needs, as well as information about the different types of lawyers and services
- ask people for feedback about the information they need and how they would like to have that information.
What we are doing
- We work with others to make sure we understand how to best help improve access to legal services. For example, we work jointly with the other legal regulators to run and develop the Legal Choices website, and with advocacy groups and the public to make sure it meets people’s needs.
- We are making it easier for people to choose the legal service they need by sharing our information with firms and the public. And our Better information, more choice reforms require firms to:
- publish detail on prices and what this covers for a range of legal work
- provide additional information, such as a description of the services they offer and the experience of those doing the work
- make their regulatory status and protections clear by using an SRA regulated logo as a digital badge.
Our guidance helps the firms who have to publish information on prices and services under Rule 1 of our Transparency Rules to understand their obligations. It also gives wider best practice advice and example templates.
- Our Looking to the Future proposals will allow more growth and innovation and introduce more flexibility in how solicitors can practise. That includes freeing up:
- solicitors to practise reserved legal activities on an individual freelance basis
- non-authorised businesses to employ solicitors to offer non-reserved legal services to the public.
- We recently consulted on changes to make sure people get the right level of protection when using a solicitor or firm, as well as benefiting from a more competitive marketplace and increased choice. Our professional indemnity insurance proposals are aimed at giving firms more flexibility to choose the right level of insurance to suit their business and clients. Our Compensation Fund proposals are focused on making sure financial support is there for those most in need of help.
- Our SRA Innovate initiative can provide a safe space for firms who want to provide new services in new ways that could benefit the users of legal services. We have also launched a new policy, so we can grant waivers to our rules if a firm’s idea is in line with our regulatory objectives and has a public benefit.
- We will evaluate the impact of our proposed changes to understand if access to legal services has improved and will feed in to the Legal Services Consumer Panel evaluation surveys, such as their Consumer Impact report. And we will publish the results to help firms understand how they, and the services they offer, can improve access to legal services.
- The Regulators’ Pioneers Fund has awarded us nearly £700,000 to improve access to the legal services market for people and small businesses by supporting business innovations using artificial intelligence. We will be working with Nesta to make funding contributions to organisations with ideas that will bring real benefit to people who need legal help.