Mind the gap: why the SRA's consumer information falls short
Thanks to the typical English bank holiday weather over the weekend I barely ventured out of the house and instead found myself working. Sad but inevitable. It’s also a bit sad that as a ‘consumer champion’ it was only in May 2012 that I came across a report on consumer attitudes towards the purchase of legal services published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in February 2011.
In my defence, there weren’t any surprises hidden in the report, so I think I can be excused from missing the ‘consumers-don’t-shop-around-for-legal-services shock’ headline. Also in my defence, I don’t think the SRA have made much of a song and dance about their measures to make consumers ‘solicitor savvy’, so I only stumbled across the consumer part of their website by accident.
Unfortunately, unless you were looking for it I am not sure you'd know what it was as it doesn’t look like a consumer website and some of the attempts to get rid of legal speak haven’t quite worked. Here are some examples from its jargon buster:
Agreement: Where two parties reach consensus on a set of facts or course of action: for example, the SRA sometimes enters into regulatory settlement agreements with individuals where particular misconduct is admitted and a sanction agreed
Misconduct: sometimes used to refer to the act in which someone regulated by the SRA breaches a principle
Notary: A lawyer regulated by the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury
Persuant: When something is related to, or comes out of, something else: for example, our powers to regulate stem from (‘are pursuant to’) various acts of Parliament.
Now I know what they mean (although I have never quite worked out what notaries do) but I am not sure your average consumer would, even if they read through the whole list, which surely isn’t quite the point. And there are some glaring omissions, such as ‘no win-no fee agreement’, although to be fair, they probably didn’t want to have to keep changing the definition.
I spoke to the SRA last year about helping them to define and flesh out their role in relation to the consumer. It didn’t get anywhere, which is a shame, because the first thing I’d have told them is their website should explain what legal services are: a product, like a will; a process, like litigation; or simple advice, like consumer rights. It may all seem obvious to solicitors but it won’t be to many consumers. Oh, and they should use a bigger font.
Consumer information is one area where the legal regulators really need to work together and probably with other organisations as well: the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) has even raised the question as to whether it is the regulatory system that should address consumers lack of engagement with the legal services market.
If I were a clueless consumer, I wouldn’t know where to look for definitive, or at least reliable, information about how to choose a lawyer and what to expect. Typing various search terms into Google tends to bring up the Law Society first, but no links at all on the first page to the SRA’s consumer information (nor, it has to be said, to that of other legal regulators).
The closest I can get is the Legal Ombudsman, which of course is focused on complaints, but this may be a strong indication of part of the solution to the issue of where consumers go to get this basic information. Spreading it across the websites of different regulators and representative bodies only adds to the confusion consumers have about the different types of legal professionals, a confusion that may become more pronounced as different providers enter the market.
The SRA research highlights how most consumers choose their lawyer on the basis of a personal recommendation and, often, simply by opting for the title of ‘solicitor’. This is not something the SRA is necessarily going to object to, but it does hamper the promotion of effective and real competition in the legal market. Consumers need to know they have options when deciding who to instruct.
This is something the LSCP highlighted in its work programme for the next year in which it states: ‘the impact of these measures [to open up the legal market] will be limited if consumers do not drive competition’. It suggests that choice tools, such as comparison websites and quality marks, would help consumers differentiate between providers. This must be right, but I am not convinced anyone is doing much to develop them.
The SRA also published researched into what consumers want and need from outcomes-focused regulation. Setting aside the rather obvious finding that consumers don’t really know what this means, it did come up with some useful insight into how consumers judge legal services. Believe it or not, it seems consumers do have certain expectations aside from the legal outcome of their case, including the time taken, value for money and the service received.
Again, there seems to be little reflection of this on the SRA’s consumer website. Is it really too difficult to have information about how much a will might cost, or what an hourly fee for a divorce lawyer in London might be, or how long it normally takes for a bit of straightforward conveyancing, or what an insurance policy under a conditional fee agreement might cost? If consumers really are to shop around for the best deal, they need some benchmarks, or at the very least some detailed case studies.
There is also little explanation about what is happening in the legal market. The SRA may argue this isn’t its job, but if it is serious about plugging the information gap then it needs to be prepared to hold the consumer’s hand in helping them to navigate the new legal landscape. It’s not much good giving a definition of an alternative business structure without explaining what it actually is.
I’m probably being a bit harsh on the SRA, after all, it does at least have a consumer website and lots of the information on it is helpful. And I know it’s a serious regulator and not a whizzy frivolous brand, but most consumers, even serious ones, are time poor and need information that reaches out and grabs them. Sadly, in the legal market, we still have a way to go.