Published in March, the report presented the first phase of research commissioned by the Legal Services Board (LSB) and found an unequal power relationship between consumers and providers. Vulnerable consumers were “less confident, less trusting, less knowledgeable, less likely to shop around, less satisfied and less likely to complain”. Empowering consumers is therefore going to be “an uphill struggle”: 42% of people do nothing when dissatisfied with the service received; 71% of consumers are satisfied with ongoing communication during their matter, but this is one of the lowest rated aspects of customer service.
One of the problems is said to be “the complex regulatory landscape, with its multiple regulators and mixture of reserved and unreserved activities” which should be simplified for consumers, “even if this means hiding the actual complexities behind-the-scenes”. Above all, “the range of information that consumers need” should be delivered in a useful form, such as making “the legal activity rather than the type of lawyer the central organising principle”.
Codes of conduct should be harmonised – “there is no good reason in principle why lawyers doing essentially the same work should have to follow different rules”. In addition, “greater visibility of providers through more advertising, wider choice, growth in fixed fee deals and packaging of legal services in simpler language” – all early trends since the introduction of alternative business structures – should assist to empower consumers. The Panel felt that there was a compelling moral and economic case to strengthen prevention through creating the equivalent of NHS Direct for law, “using intelligent technology to provide a form of early diagnosis which people are most likely to use when experiencing a problem in order to work out what to do next”.
Nevertheless, consumer empowerment alone is not enough to deliver the regulatory objectives, the report said: “The LSB must ensure effective regulation before it can expect consumers to drive competition.”
The Panel has also released its response to the Transforming Legal Aid consultation, which focuses on the impact of the proposal to deny consumers the right to choose their own defence lawyers.