A better deal for consumers
The story of the SRA's consumer empowerment work 2012-13 and looking ahead to what's next
For many of us using a lawyer is a 'once in a lifetime' experience, linked to life's big events. Having said that the circumstances that can cause us to need one come along more often than you might at first think.
The Legal Services Board's consumer research from June 2012 shows nearly half of adults across England and Wales feel they experienced at least one legal need in the past three years. In many of those cases a lawyer was brought on board to help out.
However, 'once in a lifetime' experiences can also be the hardest to understand and in some cases breed uncertainty and confusion. People can feel at a loss about what to expect from a lawyer, and often have a poor grasp of the choices and rights available to them when they use a legal service.
Thinking about the past 18 months through the eyes of consumers some big opportunities for change emerged. 2012 was of course the first year that 'alternative business structures' were able to join our regulated community and new business models were granted licences. We also saw more legal comparison websites setting up shop, and some law firms stepping further into the limelight with primetime TV adverts and promotional campaigns.
2012 was also the first full calendar year in operation for the SRA's outcomes-based approach to regulation. The firms and lawyers we regulate have more flexibility than ever before to meet the needs of their clients and take their commercial practices in new directions.
This means that lawyers can communicate and work with each individual client in the ways that work best for them. Once someone starts using legal services provided by an SRA-regulated firm or lawyer some of the problems caused by 'once in a lifetime' uncertainties and confusion can be more easily tackled.
In this report we look back at some of the highlights from our work over the past 18 months that we think have resulted in changes for the better for consumers. Some of this is very much work in progress but it's useful to pause for a moment and look at what has changed, and where there's still work to be done.
On our website we are publishing new actions for the next stage of our consumer empowerment approach.
I hope you enjoy the report, and I'd be delighted to hear from you if you have any views on our work in this area.
Director of Inclusion
One of our priorities from the start of 2012 was to look more closely at ways that people can become better informed about legal services when, and if, they need to. For people starting the journey of seeking legal help, or others finding themselves faced with a sudden legal need but no way of knowing where to begin, the fear-factor can be very real.
'Empowerment' may sound like classic jargon but it gets across where we set our sights over the past 18 months. Much of the work described in this report was designed to give people a helping hand to approach their legal problems; in particular to know more about their rights and the outcomes that legal services can provide for them.
We published our approach to consumer empowerment in December 2011. It became our blueprint during 2012 and 2013 for keeping consumers central to our work. It formed part of our broader outcomes-focused regulation strategy, but was also the product of consumer engagement work carried out in the preceding years, including a range of consumer research studies.
In 2012 we set our sights on two key things in particular - consumer education and consumer engagement. Our view is that if people know where to go to access the legal advice and support they might want, and also have opportunities to share opinions and ask questions, then they are more likely to feel confident to make choices about those services.
We set down some actions to focus on, and we will review some of the highlights in each area in this report. The actions were as follows:
- use consumer research to help us identify problems people face and to take action to improve outcomes and raise standards,
- provide a broader range of ways for people to share their views with us including through the use of social media,
- improve the information we provide through our website to help consumers understand more about the choices they make if they use a lawyer, and
- work more closely with other organisations that support consumers to make sure we understand where we overlap and can collaborate to help consumers understand who to turn to for help in different situations.
SRA consumer research 2012-13
Legal services are lifelines for people needing a helping hand to get through the challenges life throws our way. The path leading to those services can be littered with barriers, and getting the best results from legal services is not always a given. In some cases people can find themselves facing further barriers associated with their personal circumstances.
When legal problems bite hard the difficulty for some people often lies in getting the right help at the right time to prevent something that starts off as a personal crisis from spiralling out of control.
The SRA's approach to regulation is outcomes focused, meaning that firms and lawyers we regulate are in a stronger position than ever before to meet the needs of each individual client they work with, and work to overcome barriers they might face.
During 2012 one of our aims was to use consumer research to examine the risks that different consumers can face, and the ways that outcomes-focused regulation should be working to address those risks.
Our priority was also to look at how different people can be vulnerable or face a higher risk of things going wrong just because of who they are, and how the legal services market responds to those people.
The outcome has been to give some of the most vulnerable groups in society a say about services they receive and problems they face. Through our research work we celebrated some of the achievements already being made by SRA-regulated firms for vulnerable clients; we have also identified gaps in provision and worked to begin addressing these where possible.
A right to reply for people who are Deaf or hard of hearing
In 2012 we published a landmark report into the experiences of people who are Deaf or hard of hearing accessing legal services, working with legal advisers, and getting their legal problems resolved.
For this project we joined forces with the Legal Services Consumer Panel and the national charity Action on Hearing Loss. We then appointed another charity called the Deaf Studies Trust to carry out a series of interviews across the country.
In total the Deaf Studies Trust interviewed 49 adults who are Deaf or hard of hearing and who had some previous experience of using legal services.
In March 2012 we published the results and recommendations for improvement. Some of the key findings included:
- perceptions that some Deaf people can feel their legal adviser works against rather than with them, triggered by ineffective communication during legal processes,
- Deaf or hard of hearing people can feel pitched into battle with their solicitor just to get their communication preferences properly understood and receive support or equipment they need, and
- low deaf-awareness in some parts of the legal profession building the impression that it is not always deaf-friendly.
Some of the report's recommendations centred on a lack of understanding on the part of some lawyers about the communication requirements that many deaf or hard-of-hearing people can have, and how best to meet those requirements.
The report argued for information for lawyers at the point of need, so if they are approached by potential clients with hearing loss with particular communication requirements they can access information about best practice in providing this.
What has changed as a result?
After the report was published we worked with the Law Society to create a Practice Note (published in July 2012) which aims to help solicitors quickly access practical information about the needs of deaf people and those who are hard of hearing.
The Legal Services Consumer Panel produced a factsheet setting out practical tips for advice providers and links to sources of support for people with hearing loss.
It also contacted the Equality & Human Rights Commission to request clarity around reasonable adjustments made by legal services providers.
We have continued to build relationships with organisations that work with deaf people such as RAD Deaf Law Centre and Action on Hearing Loss which is now represented on our Forum on Disability.
Putting a spotlight on vulnerability
Things that make someone vulnerable alter from person to person. For someone using legal services these factors can be diverse.
For example, someone who is unemployed might be vulnerable due to not having resources to pay for professional help if a legal problem crops up. However if that person speaks English as their second language, or experiences mental illness, they may find themselves exposed to greater risks of disadvantage and hurdles to get their legal problems sorted out.
Our work with the Deaf Studies Trust underlined the extent to which people do struggle with legal services and their lawyers because of factors well beyond their control.
In 2012 we launched a new research process aiming to shine more light onto this area. We ran focus groups and interviews with members of the public and organisations across England and Wales. Our aim was to understand how potentially vulnerable consumers access information and support they need when faced with legal problems.
The interviews helped us build a clearer understanding of the extent to which information can be used to improve outcomes for vulnerable people when they access legal services.
The findings are helping to shape a new online resource for consumers (more on this later in the report). They have also supported us to identify an emerging risk in our 2013 Risk Outlook relating to more vulnerable consumers being impacted by poor standard of service and legal advice. See page 31 of our Risk Outlook for more information.
Interventions through the eyes of clients
Another consumer research priority for us over the past 18 months has been to start looking more closely at our decisions to 'intervene' when we have to step in and close down an SRA-regulated firm in the public interest. We are commissioning a new research process to look at this through the eyes of clients.
It will help us build a clearer demographic profile of clients of intervened firms and their experiences, as well as understanding more about impacts for those client groups.
More information on this research will be published during 2013 and 2014.
With a raft of changes on the horizon for legal services consumers one of our priorities in 2012 was to take greater stock of what consumers think about law firms and lawyers.
One aim here was to place a marker down to begin understanding in the longer term how outcomes focused regulation can impact people across England and Wales.
We also wanted to understand more about how different people approach their legal problems, and at which stages in the process they feel the need to speak out about what is happening to them.
This chapter sets out some highlights from our 'face-to-face' work with consumers in 2012-13 and what changes have resulted from this.
State of the nation
We created a format for a consumer event called 'Your Say'. We then took this to different places to speak to local consumers in towns and cities across England and Wales where we met members of the public, and local advice services and organisations.
As well as providing a snapshot of people's needs and experiences up and down the country, some of the visits were held to build up evidence for research interviews we carried out into consumer vulnerability, as highlighted already in chapter 2 of this report.
'Your say' events schedule
|Location||Date of event|
|Oldham||September and December 2012|
At the 'Your Say' events local residents came along to find out more about the SRA and to talk to us. This helped us build a snapshot of consumer experiences and opinions. Everyone taking part also received information about the SRA and the choices available to them if they used a legal service in the future.
Awareness of organisations like the Legal Ombudsman was generally low with the implication being that people felt uninformed about help available to them. Other observations included:
- in Leicester two-thirds of people we spoke to said they had a very low understanding of what service and behaviours to expect from a lawyer
- in Hackney some people we spoke to assumed they would not have the right to access the Legal Ombudsman's services if they used legal aid
- in Llandudno 80% of people we spoke to could name a law firm - when we asked them the names three-quarters named the same local firm
Looking in the round at the events helped us to start building up a national view of what consumers really think about our work, and the things that matter the most to them relating to legal services.
Bright lights, big cities
Many city-dwellers we spoke to seemed confident about the options and choices available to them within legal services. The nature of fast-paced urban lifestyles could go some way to explaining this, with plentiful information and advertising in city centre environments. The sheer number of law firms that are visible and accessible within cities we visited seems to play a big part too.
For example the majority of people we spoke to in Manchester could reel off law firm names without hesitation, regardless of whether or not they had used a solicitor before. The two most popular choices were large local firms with strong Manchester ties - although a total of 28 firms were mentioned, suggesting a wide range of legal providers in people's consciousness. The implication too was that people we spoke to in the cities often already have somewhere in mind to start their journey if they need help with a legal issue.
In cities we also noticed the most common criteria people mentioned for working well with a lawyer was for them to be explicit and clear about the choices available to them. A man we spoke to in Leicester summed this up neatly when he said:
"for me, I want them just to lay all the cards on the table, right from the start. Give me the full picture and that's good enough for me."
Away from the city centres we saw stronger community ties. Where choice and availability of local firms decreased 1 or 2 firms tended to sit in the hearts and minds of residents.
This was particularly evident in Llandudno, where over two-thirds of the people we spoke to named the same local North Wales firm. The importance of tradition and word-of-mouth came across in the smaller regions we visited, coupled with an impression of people placing high value on local networks such as family, friends and local recommendations.
In smaller communities issues of cost really came to the fore. In Hackney and Llandudno price information was cited as the most important criterion for legal decisions, and the deal-breaker that would determine the choice of a legal service.
Even in the case of long-established local firms with stronger community ties, many people we met told us that price considerations could outweigh that reputation entirely if a quote they provided for a particular piece of work was seen to be too high.
One theme greeting us time and time again in cities and smaller communities alike was the age-old question of knowing what to look out for when you start using a lawyer. This didn't seem to be affected particularly by where you live or who you know. In fact for most people it came down to the simple fact that legal problems tend to come along once in a blue moon, so knowledge and experience of using lawyers reflects this.
This was the pinch-point for many people we met during our 'Your Say' events. Some of the more confident locals acknowledged their lack of awareness but felt they could do something about it themselves. Others we met who had used legal services previously felt that they had been impacted by not knowing what to expect from either their lawyer or the service itself.
For some this resulted mainly in a gut feeling that they were on a slightly un-equal footing with their lawyer from the start. At the other end of the scale though some people we spoke to felt at a total loss about their choices and had a very low awareness of what their lawyer had actually done for them.
One example of this was a lady we spoke to in Leicester who had assumed that long periods of silence from her appointed solicitor were typical of the legal process for her accident claim, although she later found out that her case had been misfiled and gone un-actioned. Another was a man we met in Manchester who said he had hesitated to challenge an unexpected charge on his legal bill as he just couldn't understand the explanation given to him to justify the amount.
Bridging the gaps
We also asked people for ideas about practical solutions to help them overcome gaps in their confidence when they use lawyers. Popular suggestions included having no-nonsense advice available somewhere about documents people might need to have read before starting to use different legal services, or giving people easier access to solicitor's records to help them make choices about the provider they use.
We floated the idea with people in Manchester of a possible new consumer-facing website in the legal services market containing no-nonsense facts about lawyers, and there was general support. Possible features that were welcomed were the possibility of being able to speak out about experiences, and having new ways of finding out about legal regulators.
When we asked who they should be responsible for this type of website, the majority felt that legal regulators or the government should step forward to do this so they could rely on the information being independent, unbiased and reliable.
Most people also said they would use this type of resource to prepare and research their options when they were faced with a legal issue.
What has changed as a result?
The events we held with members of the public in 2012 helped us get a clearer grasp of the bigger things that really matter to people when they need to use a lawyer.
Rather than rely on assumptions or stereotypes about consumers, or over-rely on input from consumer bodies, we feel we have been able over the past 18 months to genuinely help members of the public to tell us honestly how things in the legal services market look from their perspective.
This has included frank views about what they feel they want and need from us as a frontline legal regulator. This has helped to open our eyes to a greater extent about the ways that firms and individuals we regulate work, and the risks that consumers come up against when they use lawyers.
We have also built up a range of views and opinions about the types of support and advice they rely on in legal situations.
This is particularly the case for people who may be viewed as more vulnerable than others, and who may rely more heavily on getting the right advice and support about legal processes and their rights. We have used the findings of our face-to-face work with consumers to kick-start a new website project working in partnership with other legal regulators, which is aiming to help meet the expectations and needs that people told us they have when faced with a legal issue.
You can find more information about the new website, including the ways we hope it will benefit consumers, in the next chapter of this report.
Heading in a new direction
Online and on track
2012 and 2013 saw us begin joining forces with other legal regulators to prepare the ground for something totally new in terms of legal services consumer empowerment.
'Legal Choices' is a new website being designed for consumers, based on the things people have told us really matter if they find themselves needing to use a legal service.
It will signpost people to information and support provided by different legal regulators and aim to help people with the choices and decisions they are faced with before, during, or after using a legal service.
However it will also for the first time provide a 'market-wide' picture of legal services covering all the different types of lawyer and law firm, as well as a whole range of support and advice suggestions.
The website will be loaded with surveys, polls and quizzes aiming to help members of the public play a much bigger role in the legal services world, and feeding their views directly to the legal regulators.
Overall we hope that 'Legal Choices' will de-mystify the legal services world a stage further and give members of the public access to interactive resources whenever they need them.
What will change as a result?
We are aiming to make sure 'Legal Choices' only shows the need-to-know facts that consumers have told us they need in order to work with lawyers.
With so much information and advice already out there about legal services we are not looking to add to this, but just cut a clear path through so that members of the public can find what they need.
The website will also become one of the new ways that we and the other legal regulators hear from consumers about the issues they face, and build a stronger public voice into the work of the various legal regulators.
Only time will tell but we hope that consumers will benefit from a port of call like this being available online. We hope it will translate in the longer term into people feeling better informed about working with their lawyers and clearer on the types of legal issues that they can seek help for.
Policy into practice
Our whole reason for being is to take action in the public interest. This means it is important that policies sitting underneath our work are designed in the right way so that they result every time in members of the public being well-protected.
The SRA's Regulatory Risk Framework helps us to identify the biggest risks facing consumers at any one point in time. However with over 100,000 individuals and 10,000 firms on the books our job is by no means a small one.
That's why we rely on hearing from members of the public about their experiences and problems they come up against. This information helps us build a picture of the biggest risks faced by members of the public when they use legal services, and to then develop our policies so that they can respond to those risks and others that emerge.
Here are some highlights from the past 18 months to keep consumer interests at the heart of our work.
Buying or selling a house is famously one of life's stressful events, and having problems with a lawyer during that process could certainly add to those stress levels.
During 2012 we completed a series of visits to 100 firms that provide conveyancing legal services, which aimed to help us build a clearer picture of the key risks posed to consumers involved in property transactions.
What has changed as a result?
We are using the findings to develop our approach towards managing these risks. This will include making sure that the policies that inform our regulatory decisions in this area are built around tackling those risks, and supporting consumers to get the outcomes they are entitled to when they use conveyancing services provided by an SRA-regulated firm.
The SRA's Compensation Fund is one of the key consumer safeguards that we oversee. It helps to support people who suffer financial losses in certain circumstances. Sometimes this could be due to a solicitor's dishonesty, for example, or where a firm was uninsured to cover a claim. In 2012 alone over £18 million was paid out to cover successful claims made to the SRA's Compensation Fund.
In October 2012 we introduced new requirements in our regulatory Handbook to make sure that all firms we regulate are properly insured to cover claims relating to professional negligence.
What has changed as a result?
The changes resulted from a consultation process that looked from the consumer perspective at the requirements needed from insurance arrangements to keep people adequately protected.
The next stage of the review is taking place and further possible changes will be considered. These will be looked at in terms of the extent to which they support consumers to be in safe hands when firms we regulate handle their finances, while also having a safety net to protect them if something does go wrong.
Over the past 18 months we have looked at a range of other policy issues with possible high impacts for consumers.
These have included:
- supervising firms involved in Stamp Duty Land Tax schemes where we looked at issues that included the extent to which consumers are properly informed about the workings of tax mitigation schemes, and
- continuing work with firms that provide claim services to consumers for mis-sold payment protection insurance (PPI) on financial products that they have used in the past.
What has changed as a result?
By working in a range of different ways with the firms we regulate to keep standards high, we have been able to make sure that our work stays focused on the greatest risks, and the issues that impact consumers the most within the legal services market.
We have backed this up with more advice and support for consumers, to help them recognise what to expect from a law firm when they use particular legal services - such as our PPI consumer advice guide and consumer news releases.
The information age
These days information is at our fingertips more than ever. If you really want to 'gen up' on something chances are you'll be able to lay your hands on at least the basics of pretty much any subject going.
Our aim over the past 18 months has been for people from different walks of life to have better access to the advice they need to make good choices about legal services. Our ongoing work to look at the role of information in helping vulnerable consumers overcome barriers they face is helping to guide us in this area.
However we also spent time in 2012 getting our own house in order, and speaking to consumers at the 'Your Say' events about the deal-breaker information they wanted, and then considering how we could deliver that information to them.
Improving consumer support on the SRA's website
Our consumer section is one of the ways we get advice and support services across to members of the public. The information we publish there aims to make it easier for people to find out what they need to, when they need to.
Some of the improved features we launched in 2012 were as follows.
Video clips explaining what to do in a range of situations - such as what to do if a law firm closes down, and how to tell if a lawyer you're thinking of using is who they say they are.
Scam alerts section
A scam alert section where consumers can find out about law firm closures and latest scam warnings from the SRA.
A legal jargon-buster to explain some of the trickier words and legal terms.
Advice guides in a range of languages setting out the key information about using solicitors.
What has changed as a result?
We received more visitors than ever before during 2012 to the reloaded 'consumers' part of our website, which saw visitors staying for longer and making greater use of the information available there.
Some of our consumer videos have now had thousands of hits, and members of the public now have a broader range of media sources to get information from us.
However the story doesn't end there. In 2014 we will continue to improve the online services and support we provide consumers, to make sure they remain as helpful and user-friendly as possible.
A helping hand
With more and more information and services appearing online it's easy to forget that not everyone is able to, or even wants to, use the internet.
In 2012 we backed up our work to strengthen our online presence with a renewed focus on helping people get the support they need from us in other ways.
Our Contact Centre is the first port of call for members of the public contacting us via phone, post or email.
In 2012 we received and responded to 125,061 phone calls and 19,934 emails from members of the public covering all sorts of subjects and problems.
For some members of the public it's a simple request for advice about finding a solicitor or how to report something to us that they are worried about. Others approach us with more complex enquiries regarding lost documents or case files. In each case we aim to help people stay on track and get their particular issue resolved.
Where we can we partner with other organisations interested in helping consumers make good choices when they use professional services and be well protected.
We've already described some of the research work we've done over the past 18 months with other bodies, such as our research work with the Deaf Studies Trust, and on projects such as 'Legal Choices' with other legal regulators.
Working with partners makes sure we can all put the limited resources we have available to good use and produce work that has strong, positive outcomes for members of the public.
Here are some other organisations that we have worked with since the start of 2012.
Breaking down the barriers
A big milestone for us in 2012 was the launch of our new SRA consumer forums, where we talk directly to not-for-profit organisations about issues within legal services that can impact the people they represent.
The first one we created is our Forum on Disability and since the start of 2012 we have met with a range of organisations such as Mencap, Age UK and Sense.
Our focus is on exploring barriers that disabled people can experience in accessing legal services and getting the support they need to resolve their legal issues, as well as identifying ways to overcome those barriers.
Some of the organisations we have worked with have already built bridges with law firms who then provide some free advice, and in some cases legal representation, for disabled people. Others we spoke to via the forum were in the earlier stages of developing such links.
Through the forum we also worked alongside different not-for-profit bodies such as Scope to support them in developing best-practice advice for disabled people on finding the right lawyer, knowing what to expect, and getting the best out of the client-lawyer relationship.
We have also started to plan a new forum to help us start working alongside not-for-profit organisations that represent people from ethnic minority communities. We are aiming to start this forum up by the end of 2013.
Help where it matters the most
With offices in more than 3,500 locations helping over 2.1 million people a year from all walks of life, Citizens Advice is the biggest single advice network for consumers across England and Wales.
In 2012 and 2013 we began to build stronger links into their network at both regional and national level with a view to supporting both our organisations to keep people well-informed about lawyers and legal services.
As part of our consumer research work in 2012 we spent time with Citizens Advice Birmingham to understand more about their work and how they help some of the most vulnerable people in society to survive legal issues.
More recently we have started to look at ways of working in partnership with Citizens Advice at a regional level, and have met with representatives from their consumer empowerment partnerships to begin building these links.
We also spent time working alongside their national office in different ways. This included supporting their Scams Awareness Month in 2013, and helping build resources that are made available to local offices on solicitors and legal services via the AdviceGuide website.
Moving into 2014 we're looking forward to continuing to work closely with Citizens Advice and supporting each other's work.
Other consumer-focused organisations that we built links with during the past 18 months have included the Legal Services Consumer Panel.
The Panel published a new version of its Consumer Impact Report in 2012 and Tracker Briefings in 2013 setting out progress made to date in achieving a truly consumer-focused legal services market based on a range of indicators.
The reports identify some good progress for consumers but a fall in their overall confidence, along with a failure by the legal regulators to engage consumers fully in their work.
We use the Impact Report and Briefings to inform our consumer empowerment work and they serve as good reminders of the real benefits that consumers can experience when we all begin to get it right.
In addition to partnership working on the Deaf Studies Trust research project, we continued to talk to the Panel's representatives on a range of issues during the year, including financial protection arrangements and will writing.
Another important partner is the Legal Ombudsman as we work closely to share information, and to make sure consumers get the support they need if something goes wrong.
In 2012 we worked with the Legal Ombudsman to sense check and improve the information we each provide on our respective websites about legal services complaints.
We also met them regularly to build closer working relationships and to continue to improve the overall consumer experience for referring people to each other's organisations.
What has changed as a result?
The relationships we have built up with organisations like these stand us in good stead to bring about positive improvements for consumer information and consumer engagement.
We are moving through 2013 and in to 2014 with strong links with other bodies that share similar visions and exist to benefit consumers, and we will be taking forward further partnership projects with them in the future.
The next chapter
So where next in this story? 2012 and 2013 so far have seen some real changes coming through for consumers, some of which we have covered in this report. However now isn't the time for resting on laurels and we are publishing a new consumer empowerment action plan.
This time our work is driven by our Regulatory Risk Index and our Risk Framework. This sets out our understanding of some of the greatest risks to the Legal Services Act 2007's Regulatory Objectives, many of which are connected to the protection and experiences of consumers.
For example one of these market risks we have identified centres on the potential for consumers to be insufficiently aware of their rights and duties when they need to use legal services. If people do not know from the outset what to look out for and what as a minimum they should be getting from their lawyer the risks of them experiencing problems during the legal process seems greater.
One of our core focuses in 2014 therefore will be to look even more closely at what these risks really mean and how they impact consumers, and take forward work aimed at understanding them and reducing their impact where we're able to do so.
Specific actions we will focus our attentions on in the last part of 2013 and until 2015 include:
- launching the 'Legal Choices' public network with other legal regulators and building it into a leading website for consumers,
- developing partnerships further with organisations like Citizens Advice to take forward consumer initiatives, and
- continuing to build Forums and face-to-face engagement work with consumers.
Read our new action plan.
Finding out more
If you are interested in finding out more about our consumer empowerment work, or if you would like to get more closely involved, please do get in touch with our Consumer Affairs team.