Vulnerable families facing debt to access legal advice

6th March 2017

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has published independent research exploring the experiences of potentially vulnerable people using family law services. The report has found that consumers are commonly using loans, credit cards, and payment plans to access legal advice as the cuts to legal aid continue to affect the most vulnerable. While 84% consumers seeking help are finding a way to pay for legal services, their chosen method can be less sustainable, particularly for cases that become protracted.

Vulnerable consumers may be involved in more complex cases and, therefore, face increased costs due to longer appointments, greater inputs from solicitors to complete aspects of the process, or more regular communication. Law firms agreed it was their responsibility to ensure clients are aware of alternative funding options and to be transparent about fee arrangements.

Firms are offering approaches such as unbundling (85%) or fixed fees (88%) to support consumers in paying fees, but the most popular solution was by agreeing a payment plan for the case (93%). However, the latter practice appears to be at the discretion of individual solicitors, rather than representing a wide strategy across firms, and was not openly advertised to consumers. The introduction of LASPO in April 2013 has seen the number of cases granted legal aid plummet. According to Amnesty’s research, some 925,000 cases were granted legal aid the year before the Act was introduced compared with 497,000 cases the following year – a drop of 46%.

The number of cases in the family courts where both parties are unrepresented (34%) is now double the amount pre-LASPO, according to the Ministry of Justice’s figures for April to June 2016. Cases where both parties benefitted from the input of a lawyer dropped from 40%in 2013 to 27% in the same quarter.

Of the 115 firms that took part in the SRA’s survey, 92%  agreed there had been an increase in the number of family law cases where the other party appeared unrepresented, and 49% agreed there has been a decrease in demand for private family law services. 75% of firms reported having to find alternative ways to reduce costs post-LASPO, suggesting that some innovation may have stemmed from the reforms.

While a large majority (86%) of consumers found it easy to find a family law solicitor, others reported issues with accessing the necessary information to help them make an informed decision on their case, such as confusion over a solicitor’s specialist knowledge, experience, cost, and location of the law firm’s offices.

Firms said they had implemented several strategies to help consumers make an informed choice about which services to access. These included telephone screening systems, trained staff to receive initial calls, longer initial meetings, and free initial sessions. Just over half (52%) of consumers based their decision about a solicitor on a personal recommendation from friends or family. Only 14% conducted their own research using the internet.

Generally, family law consumers had a positive experience of solicitor provided legal services. Almost half (48%) rated the service as excellent. One in ten rated the service as very poor.

Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said “People who need to use family law services are often in particularly vulnerable situations. Situations such as divorce or child custody arrangements are highly emotional and stressful, and the consequences of poor legal services can be life changing. It is important that people can find services that meet their needs and that those services are affordable. This research is a contribution to understanding the current landscape and what more can be done to help.”

The SRA report can be found here.