Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

The state of legal services in England and Wales: new report from the Legal Services Board, 2020

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A second report on legal services which was published towards the end of 2020 is that by The Legal Services Board. Entitled The State of Legal Services 2020, the Board reflects on some of the Board’s achievements over the past 10 years sinceit began its work, which it argues have contributed improvements in the provision of legal services. The Board cites, in particular, the creation of new forms of legal service arising from the use of Alternative Business Structures; users of legal services reporting greater satisfaction with the services they receive; and providers coming to see that professional regulation does not create the barriers to innovation in the provision of legal services that was sometimes though to be the case.

However, the Board is clear that there is still much to be done. Their Report notes that::

  • 3.6 million adults in England and Wales have an unmet legal need involving a dispute every year
  • More than 1 in 3 adults (36%) have low confidence that they could achieve a fair and positive outcome when faced with a legal problem
  • Nearly nine in ten people say that “law is a game in which the skilful and resourceful are more likely to get what they want”

While many are concerned about reductions in the scale and scope of legal aid and increased pressure on third sector advice agencies, other factors also contribute.

  • Many people and businesses lack the capability and confidence to recognise legal problems and get help.
  • Comparison websites and customer review sites are not well established.
  • Only 30% of consumers shop around, and only 2% use a comparison service before choosing a law firm.

The Covid-19 pandemic has created challenges for both the profession and people who need legal services. Many are concerned that it has made existing social inequality starker. The pandemic has made the need for services that meet the needs of society more urgent.

To meet these challenges, the Legal Services Board has started a consultative process to develop a strategy – to be published in 2021 – for the next 5 years to address these concerns. The Board has decided that this strategy should be based on the following principles

  • Fairer outcomes – widening public access to advice and support and ensuring that no one has a worse outcome or quality of service due to their background or life circumstances. The sector must also build a more inclusive culture which enables anyone to enter the law and achieve their full career potential.
  • Stronger confidence – resolving long-standing questions around the scope of regulation and broadening access to redress. It also requires regulators to put the right mechanisms in place so that legal professionals deliver consistently competent and ethical legal services.
  • Better services giving consumers the information and tools they need to drive stronger competition, creating the right conditions for providers – including those yet to enter the market – to redesign legal services that respond to their needs. It also entails regulators fostering responsible innovation that commands the trust of both the public and legal professionals.

The LSB has also commented on the Competition and Markets Authority report published in December as follows:

“The CMA’s findings echo the conclusions of our recently published State of Legal Services 2020 report. Although pricing information given to people who need legal services is more transparent, price competition is still weaker than we would wish to see. The range of prices offered by different providers for the same legal service hasn’t yet narrowed in the way we would have expected. There hasn’t been any progress on developing indicators that would enable consumers to assess the quality of providers. Although more people are shopping around for legal services, this trend has not accelerated since the CMA’s study in 2016.

“Regulators and providers can do much more to improve competition in the legal services sector and to make it easier for people who need legal advice to find and compare services that meet their needs and make informed decisions.”

As I have noted in other contexts, the challenge for the regulatory bodies is to know how to transform these aspirations for improvements in the provision and delivery of legal services into practical effect. One thing that it may be necessary for the regulators to do is to indicate more clearly how they see current business models, used by those providing legal services, being developed so that practitioners can continue to be both commercially successful and the providers of legal services needed by the public. Without assistance, busy practitioners may not have the time or energy to think about doing things differently – especially those who are finding the current demands of practice overwhelming.

The LSB Report is available at https://www.legalservicesboard.org.uk/state-of-legal-services-report-2020. This links to the full report and evidence taken from those consulted by the Board.

The LSB comments on the CMA report are at https://www.legalservicesboard.org.uk/news/lsb-response-to-the-cmas-market-study-review.

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