Better protection needed for consumers of legal services

University College London

An overhaul of how legal services are regulated in England and Wales is needed to better protect consumers and ensure more people can access legal services, according to a new report prepared by Stephen Mayson, Honorary Professor of Law at UCL.

a statue of Justice on top of the Old Bailey

The report, shared with the Ministry of Justice, is a supplement to Professor Mayson’s major review of legal services regulation published in 2020.

In the new report, Professor Mayson (UCL Centre for Ethics & Law) outlines the wide range of consumer harms arising from failures in legal services, how current regulation addresses them, and the reforms that are needed to better protect against them.

These harms include those caused by scams, dishonesty, incompetence and different types of poor service, as well as harms caused by an ever-increasing level of “unmet” legal needs which, the report says, is the legal sector’s greatest challenge.

Current structures of consumer protection exacerbate the problem, the report says, by serving to discourage people from seeking legal services.

Key to addressing these harms, the report argues, is:

  • To extend regulation to legal service providers who are currently unregulated, such as providers of will-writing, estate administration, employment and lawtech services.
  • To make consumer dispute resolution mandatory – currently it is not for unregulated legal service providers – so that when consumer harms occur, the burden is not placed on the consumer to pursue remedies through the courts or with the aid of third parties.
  • To shift the emphasis of regulation from the avoidance of consumer harm (negative) to a positive state of ‘legal well-being’ – a “state in which consumers can have confidence in their choice of legal advisers without burdensome enquiry about their regulatory status; in which the legal sector offers ease of access to advice, representation and document preparation; in which enquiry, engagement and redress are similarly less burdensome processes; and through which the legitimate participation of citizens in society is supported, in accordance with their legal rights and duties.”

The report identifies a number of existing measures to help promote “legal well-being” in the UK, including consumer education, pro bono work, legal aid funding, and regulatory sandboxes that encourage innovation in a particular area. But it goes on to recommend new policies to encourage wider take-up of legal expenses insurance (often included, for instance, in house insurance), as well as health justice partnerships, where legal services work together with GPs to tackle health issues that can be solved through legal means, such as health problems caused by poor housing.

Professor Mayson said: “If citizens cannot readily and effectively enforce or defend their rights, if their health and well-being are adversely affected by the effort of doing so, if they do not feel that their quality of life is enhanced by their successful interaction with the law (even in a positive life-event, such as moving home), then it does us as a society little credit to stand by and do nothing to improve their experience.

“We believe that in England & Wales we have the best legal system in the world, and some of the best lawyers. We are right to believe that. But we must also accept that our regulatory framework that oversees it is an emperor with precious few clothes on.”

Credit: iStock image.

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