How People Resolve ‘Legal’ Problems

The full report can be found below including appendix and presentation.

The Legal Services Board commissioned Professor Pascoe Pleasence and Dr Nigel Balmer to produce a statistical analysis of existing legal needs survey data to understand how consumers’ demographics, attitudes, capabilities and beliefs affect their response to legal problems. This presents the findings of this analysis.

Why did we undertake this research?

Under Section 28 of the Legal Services Act 2007 (LSA), Parliament gives all the approved regulators[1] the Legal Ombudsman, and the LSB the regulatory objective of improving access to justice. Better understanding of the links between consumer attitudes and beliefs can support the approved regulators in undertaking steps to deliver against this objective.

We know from our own consumer benchmarking research that consumers respond to legal needs in a range of ways. In some situations consumers appear to be taking reasoned and, some might argue, rational decisions on whether to ignore problems, handle them themselves or approach someone for formal legal advice. This means the issue cannot be simply stated as “where an individual did not seek advice they were denied access to justice”.  

However, what is not clear is whether the best outcomes are being secured frequently and easily enough for regulators to not be concerned at all.

For some frequently experienced problems such as issues with consumer goods, a high level of acting alone has been encourage by changes in public policy and new ways of incentivising organisations and individuals to deal with problems away from formal legal processes. Whether this is a positive development is more ambiguous in other areas – for example in relation to domestic violence where only 27% of problems resulted in advice being obtained.

What new information did this research provide?

Previous analysis of the Civil and Social Justice Survey data looked at levels of incidence of problems, the demographics of those experiencing problems, and the types of responses. This new analysis explores the relationship between lawyer use and attitudes, beliefs, understanding and experience of the law and dispute resolution; with a particular focus on problem characterisation, subjective legal empowerment and perceived problem severity.

The research confirms that people do not frame legal problems along professional or regulatory lines. It confirms that when people classify a problem as severe they are more likely to seek advice from a law firm or the advice sector. However even with the most severe problems over half of individuals handle these problems alone, and only 9.4% actually sought advice from a law firm.

In terms of legal capability, the research found some evidence of greater advice seeking behaviour among older age groups and among those with academic qualifications, but also that whether or not respondents felt that they knew their rights had little impact on the type of  response.

Interestingly 6% of respondents suggested that they or their partner was a lawyer, legal adviser or teacher of law, or had studied law. Such legal experience was a significant predictor of problem-solving strategy resulting in less inaction and more advice seeking behaviour. Most interestingly however is the fact that problem resolution behaviour is also ‘learned’ (both individually and within households), meaning that it is likely to recur when new problems are faced.
Accounting for problem type, the key factors that determine how individuals respond to a legal problem are:

  • whether or not they perceive the problem to be legal, and
  • their own assessment of the cost of resolving the problem.

People who characterise problems as ‘legal’ are less likely to ‘lump’ them and far more likely instruct a solicitor.  But failure to characterise problems as legal does not bear on use of the wider advice sector, with people using it regardless of their understanding of the problem to be a legal problem.

Looking at the source of advice used, most respondents who obtained help from an advice agency rather than a lawyer said they did so because of the perceived cost. On the other hand people’s perceptions of cost can be inaccurate, because of a lack of information and preconception of lawyers as expensive.

As a consequence the authors conclude that making lawyers cheaper to access may not greatly change consumer behavior.

The role of cost in decision making also makes clear the challenge of further innovating to provide legal services for people with different levels of resources. Public legal education and the development of services that meet the public’s perceived needs may also be necessary.  Marketing  – the private sector form of public legal education – of personal injury services appears to overcome concerns about cost.

How are we going to use this research?

We will use this research to inform our efforts to measure changes in access to justice over time, and assess the longer term impacts of the Legal Services Act 2007 reforms. Analysing consumers provides insight for the further development of consumer principles. Better understanding of why people do what they do in response to a legal problem should ensure more effective policy decisions. It should also provide insight for regulators representative bodies, and providers, looking to address unmet need.

[1] Solicitors Regulation Authority, Bar Standards Board, ILEX Professional Standards, Council for Licensed Conveyancers, Intellectual Property Regulation  Board, Master of Faculties, and the Costs Lawyer Standards Board