In June 2016, the SRA commissioned research to provide insight into the expectations and experiences of clients that may be vulnerable in family law, focussing on access, cost and quality of service as well as the competence, behaviours and practices of solicitors in legal firms offering family law to vulnerable clients.
The research was carried out between August and September 2016 and consisted of desk based research (ie literature search including the SRA’s report on Vulnerable Clients); a consumer survey by way of computer assisted telephone interview (117 interviews completed); 23 in-depth consumer interviews as well as firm surveys (115 responses) with 16 of the 115 going on to in-depth interviews.
The SRA identified approximately 3,900 firms of the 10,000 regulated firms as involved in the provision of family law services and 3672 were invited to be involved in the research. 3257 did not respond, 96 incomplete replies were received, a number resulted in soft or hard bounces of the emails with only 115 completed surveys.
A comprehensive sixty-one page report was published on 2nd March 2017 which provides in-depth analysis of the key findings and sets out areas of good practice and areas for improvement.
The research is based on the experiences of very limited numbers of clients and family law practices and there is much information in the report about the types and size of practice, geographical locations, types of work undertaken, types of vulnerabilities etc.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]
Key findings / statistics from the report in respect of each area include
- • The majority of clients – 86% – found it easy to find a family law solicitor;
- • Clients reported that the knowledge and experience of a solicitor was more important when choosing a solicitor than cost or office location – although issues were reported in accessing information relating to cost and a solicitor’s expertise;
- • 52% of clients tend to make a decision about which solicitor to use based on personal recommendations from friends / family because this gives them comfort re the solicitor’s approach and experience which is often not publicly available;
- • Only 14% of clients conduct their own research via the internet when accessing family law services;
- • Some firms had implemented strategies to assist clients in making an informed choice, for example, free initial interview, training staff to receive initial calls, longer first interviews;
- • Only 30% of law firms advertise directly to vulnerable clients but there are well-established referral routes (usually for firms with legal aid contracts) with voluntary organisations who support vulnerable groups (mostly domestic abuse).
- • 64% of clients surveyed report that costs are affordable. However, some clients have to take out loans or use a credit card to pay for the services;
- • 85% of firms agree that it is their responsibility to ensure that clients are aware of alternative types of funding;
- • The majority of firms are transparent about costs and fee arrangements and often help clients to understand how their actions and behaviour can increase costs as well as offering different approaches – 88% offered fixed fees, albeit found it challenging to fund family law cases effectively in this way because of the uncertainty of the cases and 85% offered unbundling;
- • The most popular method of funding was found to be individual payment plans (93%) but this was not something that firms generally advertised as a means of paying and tended to be at the discretion of an individual solicitor rather than a firm-wide practice;
- • Some firms are able to deliver adjustments to clients with vulnerabilities whilst absorbing the cost of doing so whilst, for other firms, this is not possible and, therefore additional charges are made on a discretionary basis;
- • 92% of firms reported that since LASPO there has been an increase in family law cases where the other side represented themselves;
- • 49% of firms said there was a decrease in demand for private family law services;
- • 75% of firms said that since LASPO they have had to consider ways in which they can reduce costs, suggesting that they were thinking innovatively about matters.
- • 45% of clients rated the service they received as excellent with only 10% rating the service as poor – regardless of the outcome of their case;
- • There is evidence that legal firms do support the additional needs of vulnerable clients in endeavouring to provide a good quality service and ensure compliance with the SRA’s competence statement – specifically in relation to “understanding and responding effectively to clients’ particular needs” and “identifying and taking reasonable steps to meet the particular service needs of all clients including those in vulnerable circumstances.”
- • 69% of firms report using a variety of means / media to provide information to clients where a vulnerability was identified and 60% said that they provided additional explanations on complex processes. It is evident, therefore, that many firms are taking steps to ensure that they comply with the SRA’s competence statement in that they “respond to and address individual characteristics effectively and sensitively” but this is not the case with all firms, so further work in this area is needed by individuals and firms;
- • Many firms are making adjustments for vulnerable clients with the most common adjustment being the provision of additional explanations (41%) followed by the provision of simplified letters (18%). This is in line with the SRA’s competence statement requirement of “using the most appropriate method and style of communication for the situation”. Firms understood that adjustments in their communication were very important to develop a trusting and sympathetic relationship with their client, but also to ensure that the client had fully understood the advice they had received;
- • Clients who were dis-satisfied with the service they received were unlikely to complain either because they didn’t know how to, they felt it would increase an already stressful situation or they felt it would cause delays in their case.
The Report is divided into sections. Sections 1 and 2 relate to Introduction and Profile of Firms. The key sections for review are Access (section3), Costs (section 4) and Quality (section 5) as well as Key Findings and Conclusion (section 6).
At the start of each of the section 3-5 is a useful summary table which gives the key findings and Section 6.2 gives a summary of areas of “Good Practice and Innovation” which is divided into the initial engagement, main engagement and managing costs.
The concluding comments are that family law has a high proportion of vulnerable clients and often the vulnerability relates to the reason for the client needing to access family law services. It concludes that some clients found it difficult to access resources to help them in their decision-making process or had to decide under time pressure and, therefore, didn’t feel that they could make an informed choice. It is considered that formal training would help to develop and address the gap in knowledge and skill base of solicitors around practices and adjustments for vulnerable clients.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]
In addition, the SRA have provided their response to the report stating that the majority of those surveyed reported coming into contact with clients with situational vulnerability rather than personal characteristic vulnerabilities and when this occurred, they adapted their practices to take account of this.
The SRA has said that, in response to the report and also the CMA report (released at the end of last year), it would be:
- • Working on increasing the availability of data to clients;
- • Conducting research into costs transparency and first tier complaints;
- • Carrying out further work to determine the prevalence and impact of some of the issues outlined in the research and this would include visits to family law firms to gain a better understanding of how they provide and adapt their services for vulnerable clients.
The full report together with the SRA’s response to the report are available at the following link:
Should you require any further information or assistance with your procedures relating to vulnerable clients in any area of your practice or for an informal discussion call Rhonda Treacy-Hales on 0203 051 2049.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]