In June 2022, the Legal Services Board (LSB) released new research exploring the vulnerabilities consumers face when they need to use legal services and highlighting the way lawyer engagement with consumers can increase or reduce vulnerability.
The objectives of the research were to identify what people using legal services are vulnerable to and the barriers or unnecessary frictions they experience. They were also able to describe what good, inclusive service design and delivery looks like for people in vulnerable circumstances, as well as the balance regulation strikes between safeguarding and enabling them to use legal services.
The research puts vulnerability into three categories: situational (associated with the inherently vulnerable situation of going through the legal process, whilst simultaneously dealing with the emotional impact of what caused the legal need; e.g. divorce); market-related (the unfamiliarity of legal processes, outcomes, costs and the relative and perceived power imbalance between lawyers and vulnerable clients); and the additional risk factors (e.g. vulnerability linked to low income, low literacy, disability or experience of domestic abuse).
It also shows how vulnerability causes stress and anxiety in the legal process. Some consumers 'drop out' of the legal services market or end up representing themselves in court, mostly because they cannot afford the advice and representation they need. Others take out loans to be able to afford legal support. This low access to legal support amongst highly vulnerable clients reflects the limited availability of affordable legal professionals working in social welfare law.
Vulnerability also affects the legal services customer experience. Many vulnerable people do not even recognise they have a legal need until they reach crisis point, which increases their vulnerability further. Low confidence prevents or delays people from seeking support. There is a risk of powerlessness and loss of agency when seeking a lawyers, with some consumers finding the process easy if they can rely on their social network while others cannot, adding to the stress of their situation. Research suggests they find identifying a lawyer hard as they do not know what to look for and cannot find comparable pricing information.
Consumers often determine the quality of experience by their vulnerability is responded to. They want their legal professional to show empathy, understanding and compassion; in short, they want to be 'heard'. Inaccessible language is a major contributor to consumers' vulnerability as it breeds confusion and exacerbates the perceived power imbalance between client and lawyer. The bureaucracy attached to legal cases can overwhelm customers who expect that lawyers do this for them. Vulnerable consumers can be dismayed by lawyers who are unresponsive to clients' attempts at communication or who fail to provide regular updates about their cases. Lack of certainty or clarity over costs and pricing increases anxiety. While remote delivery of legal services makes legal services more accessible to some vulnerable consumers, such as those with mobility issues, some digitally excluded consumers find remote delivery more difficult.
The LSB highlights the role played by intermediary organisations, such as unions, charities and Citizens Advice. These organisations reduce customer vulnerability by providing practical and emotional support; guiding and explaining processes; and referring people on to more specialist support, such as legal professionals. However, there is risk where intermediary organisations refer or recommend legal professionals where this put consumers at a disadvantage because the professionals do not meet their needs - or the consumers cannot afford them. There is also the issue of pro-bono legal support where advisors are helpful but not legally trained, or are trained in another area.
The LSB recommends:
The LSB recommends:
- Recognised and trustworthy tools to facilitate choice, making it easier to search for, compare and choose legal professionals;
- Alternative models of service delivery that improve visibility and affordability, such as more user-friendly technology to help people understand and asset their legal rights;
- 'Co-location' of legal professionals in community organisations and settings where people tend to go for support;
- Clients knowing what to expect in terms of the legal professional's role, processes and costs;
- Legal professionals identifying, understanding and accommodating their clients' needs, and not making assumptions about their circumstances or level of understanding;
- Clients feeling reassured and at ease;
- People understanding what is happening in their cases throughout;
- Clarity about costs, pricing plans and charges throughout the process;
- Legal professionals ensuring proper handovers to other legal professionals explaining who they are and what their role is;
- Legal professionals routinely explaining next steps; and,
- Customer feedback being routinely collected.
It is imperative that lawyers understand the vulnerabilities consumers face when they need and use legal services. By engaging with consumers constructively, vulnerability can be reduced and legal access increased.