by Sarah McDermott, Senior policy officer (Strong Communities team)
This article first appeared in the Herald on 3 March 2021.
At some point in all our lives, we might need support with understanding legal issues, whether it’s buying a house, resolving disputes with neighbours or dealing with employment issues. But the question is when we need advice on legal issues, how and where should we look for it?
Last year, Citizens Advice Scotland commissioned Yougov to ask more than 1,000 Scottish adults this very question, and to find out how people feel about legal services. We found that overall, people struggle to know how to find or choose a solicitor to help them.
Good quality advice and support is essential in ensuring that everyone can obtain access to justice. Issues of cost and affordability should not be barriers to people getting the support they need, yet we know that people worry about the price of consulting a solicitor or taking court action.
In our survey, we found that when looking for a solicitor, 45% of people would be more likely to choose someone if they seemed to offer a reasonable rate for their services, while 47% would value a free initial consultation.
But unlike other types of services, it can be hard to shop around and compare prices for legal services. This is set to improve, with the Law Society of Scotland introducing guidance on price transparency, meaning it should be easier to get a sense of how much it might cost to write a will, buy a home or to obtain support in dealing with employment issues. As things stand, people don’t feel well-equipped to judge the quality of service they receive or what is a fair price. In focus group research, participants had high expectations of solicitors, which was partly due to the high fees associated with them. They perceived solicitors to be knowledgeable experts who are qualified and professional, but also expensive.
It can also be tricky to even know when you might need a solicitor. Many people try and deal with issues themselves or hope the problem will go away. We’ve noticed over the years that people are often nervous about the legal system and feel intimidated by it, particularly if they haven’t dealt with it before. We asked the people we surveyed what issues they thought it might be essential or helpful to use a solicitor for. Participants felt that using a solicitor would be essential or useful for compensation over damaged high value items (51%), unfair dismissal (69%), and being threatened with eviction (71%).
When we looked at the people who went on to use solicitors’ services, we found that while most would be happy to recommend the service provider, many people associated legal issues with difficulty and distress. And, while they valued solicitors’ professionalism and skills, clients also found them expensive and were confused by the use of legal jargon.
There is also a common misconception that a lawyer and a solicitor are the same thing. More than three quarters of people we asked believed that someone who calls themselves a lawyer was qualified and regulated by a professional body. In fact, anyone can call themselves a lawyer without having any legal qualifications or training as it is not a protected term.
The title of ‘solicitor’ is protected, meaning that it is a criminal offence for someone to call themselves a solicitor if they are not approved as one by the professional body, the Law Society of Scotland.
This can be extremely confusing for consumers, especially since instructing a solicitor is a rare experience for most. In fact, this issue was highlighted by an independent review into the regulation of legal services in 2018, which underlined that there is a risk of consumers paying for a service that is not protected by the appropriate oversight, protections and insurance arrangements. 85% of people we asked said they believed that anyone using the description 'lawyer' and providing legal services should be qualified and regulated by a professional body. For consumer confidence in legal services, does this need to happen?
As with all things, the impact of Covid-19 has been felt across the legal system in a number of ways, but has pushed alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, into sharper focus. Mediation focusses on facilitating agreement rather than a ‘win or lose’ scenario, and can empower individuals to come to agreements without the need for courts or even lawyers in many cases. Whilst this may not be appropriate in all cases, ultimately the choice on how to proceed should remain with those involved. For this to work, consumers should be able to make informed choices when resolving disputes, including knowing who to ask for support, what to look for when accessing legal services and what costs may be involved.
It’s important to recognise that people often seek legal advice during stressful situations such as dealing with employment issues, facing eviction or navigating the welfare system. These are times when people are at their most stressed and their most vulnerable.
This is why CAS believes it is important to reform our legal system, to ensure funding is in place to support an early intervention and prevention approach to legal disputes. We want to see easier access to swifter and earlier options for resolving disputes. And we want to see reform of how our legal services are regulated to create more independence, transparency and public confidence. We want to see our communities, individuals and businesses empowered to resolve issues in the ways that work for them wherever possible. Providing trusted advice on legal issues, supporting earlier resolution and removing financial barriers to accessing advice can help to make access to justice a reality for all.