rblog

Family law research

By Debra Malpass on 16 March 2017

Earlier this month we published research on family law. Changes to legal aid have affected access to public funding for some, and this was just one of the reasons why we felt the time was right to understand consumers' experiences in this area.

People needing the services of a family lawyer are often facing stressful and potentially life-changing situations, such as divorce, domestic abuse and child custody arrangements. These situations can make someone more vulnerable than they might otherwise be. The Competence Statement makes it clear that solicitors need to adapt their services for consumers who may be vulnerable to ensure they receive the same quality service that anyone might expect. Our Risk Outlook 2016/17 explains that poor service can have a more profound impact if a person is vulnerable. 

We know that legal costs affect people's choices and ability to instruct a solicitor. We also recognise the importance of high professional standards and quality of service. The research identifies both good practices of solicitors and areas for improvement. 

What we learnt

Access to services could be improved with better consumer information 

Most consumers found it easy to find a solicitor and, as has been found in other surveys, many based their decision on personal recommendations. However, consumers had trouble finding information on costs and a solicitor's experience, which supports the findings of the Competition and Market Authority's (CMA) recent study into the legal services market. Some firms did help people consumers choose which services to access by having telephone screening systems, or setting up longer or free initial meetings. 

Costs of services needs careful managing and support 

Although most consumers reported their solicitor’s costs to be affordable, many of these needed additional finance from loans, credit cards or family to make the costs manageable. Almost half of consumers felt that their solicitor's costs were more than expected and some said that their solicitor had not explained why the cost was higher. Solicitors should always tell their clients if the costs are likely to exceed the initial estimate at the earliest opportunity. Some firms offered unbundled services or fixed fees, which help people afford and manage the costs of legal help, but these were not widely advertised. 

Quality of services are good overall but more complaints information is needed 

Most consumers were pleased with the professionalism and service quality from their solicitor. Consumers who were dissatisfied were unlikely to complain, either because they were not aware of the process, concerned that it would affect their case or did not feel comfortable to complain. This highlights that consumers need more information about complaints processes. Solicitors should always tell their clients about the complaint process in writing. They could also make clients aware that making a complaint can benefit their working relationship as it can lead to improved communication and understanding of each other. 

What will we do with this research? 

The research found areas for improvement, particularly around consumer information on costs, unbundled services, solicitors' experience and complaints processes. We will be carrying out further work to determine the prevalence and impact of some of the issues outlined in the research. 

This is likely to involve visits to family law firms to understand how they provide and adapt their services to meet the needs of consumers who may be vulnerable. This will also give us the opportunity to share good practice with firms. 

This year we are conducting research into costs transparency. We are also working with the Legal Ombudsman to understand how solicitors handle complaints and legal consumers' experiences of making complaints. 

This will help build our evidence base to inform our work on making sure that the firms we regulate are providing the information consumers need to make good choices. Watch this space for news about these projects later this year. 

You can read the full research report on family law here.

Debra Malpass