How Can People in the UK Get Better Access to Legal Services?
Access to essential legal services is a growing issue in the UK, affecting millions every year. How can the legal sector turn things around?
Solicitors and law firms play an essential role in helping individuals, families and businesses across the UK to protect their legal rights, resolve disputes and secure financial support in moments of need. However, at present, some are finding it harder to access these vital services than others, even when they are in dire need – and the industry must do its bit to make sure this problem is addressed.
The legal services sector is larger and more diverse than ever before, with a huge range of choices available to consumers when it comes to seeking out professional advice and legal counsel. Yet despite this, there remains a significant percentage of individuals and businesses who are unaware of the legal options available to them, or who simply lack the resources to take advantage of them.
Here, we will explore some of the key issues that are preventing people in the UK from getting proper access to legal services, as well as examine the current and potential future solutions that can help to turn this around.
Why are people struggling to access legal services?
The current challenges facing UK businesses and consumers in accessing legal services have been compellingly laid out by the Legal Services Board (LSB) in its 2020 report on the Legal Needs of Individuals in England and Wales, created in partnership with The Law Society and YouGov.
This report, compiled based on a survey of 28,633 individuals across the nation, revealed a number of eye-opening statistics that demonstrate how commonplace it has become for people in the UK to encounter legal problems, without necessarily knowing how to access the effective legal support they need:
- 64% said they had experienced a legal problem in the last four years – equivalent to around 29.8 million people – including 53% who faced a contentious problem. 1.8 million small businesses are also estimated to face legal issues every year.
- 31% of those who faced a contentious legal problem that was eventually resolved did not ultimately receive help, wanted more help, or found that their issue took longer than two years to resolve.
- People with low legal confidence were less likely to seek professional help (54% did not choose to, compared to 47% of those with high confidence.
- 66% of those who received professional help felt they were able to achieve a fair outcome, compared to 53% of those who did not receive professional help.
Solicitors and law firms play an essential role in helping individuals, families and businesses across the UK to protect their legal rights.
The LSB subsequently published its 10-year report into the current state of UK legal services towards the end of 2020, drawing additional conclusions from its research and conversations with industry stakeholders that provide further illustration of the problem:
- 6 million adults in England and Wales are estimated to have an unmet legal need involving a dispute every year.
- 36% have low confidence that they would be able to achieve a fair and positive outcome if faced with a legal problem.
- Only one in 10 small business owners see lawyers as cost-effective, and 50% of them handle their legal issues alone.
- Only 33% of UK adults agree with the statement that “people like me can afford help from a lawyer”.
- The UK is ranked 79th in the world in terms of the accessibility and affordability of civil justice.
When taking all of these considerations into account, a clear picture emerges: one that shows a significant percentage of the UK population who feel locked out of accessing high-quality legal services, and who require better guidance and advice on how to receive the support they need.
When should people be seeking legal advice?
This question is difficult to provide a definitive answer for, as the legal viability of any individual’s case will depend entirely on the specific circumstances. However, it is clear that at present, many people are unaware of where to turn for an answer to this question, or are finding it hard to decide whether it is worth asking.
According to the LSB findings, the issues that people are most likely to seek out professional legal support for include cases involving injury, wills, conveyancing or family law matters, whereas they are much less likely to seek help for employment, welfare, property and consumer problems. However, cases belonging to the latter category – such as complaints over poor services and faulty goods, or antisocial behaviour from neighbours – tend to be some of the most common issues that people face, meaning that many people are not seeking out help at the times they most frequently need it.
In order for businesses and individuals to understand when it is appropriate to seek legal advice, they need to be asking themselves the following questions:
- What is the source of my problem? Why did it happen, and whose actions have caused it?
- What are my legal rights and responsibilities in this situation? Has this problem caused my legal rights to be infringed, and have I done everything I can to resolve it?
- What outcome or solution am I seeking for this problem? Which individual or organisation do I need to contact to bring about this outcome?
- Do I have the supporting evidence and documentation I need to back up my version of events?
- Is this a matter I can personally resolve effectively with everything I have to hand, or will I need a professional legal adviser or advocate to make the case for me?
For those who lack legal confidence, efforts will need to be made to communicate how this process works as clearly as possible, as well as reducing any perceived barriers to accessing legal assistance when needed.
How can people get easier access to legal support?
There are already a large number of services and support measures offered by the legal industry to ensure that individuals and businesses in need are able to access free or affordable legal support and advice:
- Legal aid: a government-funded scheme that helps to meet the costs of legal advice, family mediation and representation in a court or tribunal. This is aimed at people in serious circumstances, such as those at risk of homelessness, domestic violence or a prison sentence, who cannot otherwise afford legal costs.
- Citizens Advice: a free service providing broad guidance on legal issues ranging from benefits and welfare to debt, employment law, housing rules and immigration.
- Law centres: offices that provide free legal advice from a solicitor or trained legal adviser, covering a range of social welfare law issues.
- Trade union support: trade union members can obtain free legal advice through their union on a range of issues, not solely limited to employment law matters.
- Free legal clinics: many law firms provide free advice sessions and clinics, giving individuals a chance to discuss their case and receive guidance on whether it would be worth progressing their claim, with no obligation to any financial commitment.
- No win, no fee arrangements: a large number of solicitors offer conditional fee arrangements as a way of paying for civil cases, meaning the consumer will only need to pay for the solicitor’s fees and expenses if the case is won.
All of these approaches are helping to make it easier for people across the UK to gain access to the legal support and guidance they require. However, the industry is committed to making further progress on this front, from the LSB’s campaign to promote legal expenses insurance more widely to consumers, to the Law Society’s efforts to reintroduce legal aid for early legal advice, particularly in family and housing law.
The legal sector in the UK is respected internationally for the high quality and wide variety of its services and advice for individuals and businesses. By continuing to promote these efforts to broaden access to legal help, the industry will be able to ensure that every member of society is able to benefit equally from its good work.
Lee Marston, Managing Partner
Clough & Willis
Address: 2 Manchester Road, Bury, Lancashire, BL9 0DT
Tel: +44 (0)800 038 0815
Clough & Willis is a full-service law firm based in the UK, offering high-quality legal advice on a broad range of personal and commercial matters.
Lee Marston is Managing Partner and Head of Family Law at Clough & Willis. In addition to practicing solely in family law, he is also a Resolution Accredited Specialist in the financial side of divorce and children disputes and was a founding member of the Family Law Panel in 2005.