Access to justice will be enhanced if consumers of legal services are empowered to handle more of their own legal affairs, the watchdog panel funded by the legal profession reports today. 

The growth of ‘self-lawyering’ is one of four ‘broad and interrelated’ developments likely to shape legal services over the next five years, the Legal Services Consumer Panel forecasts. 

A report, commissioned by the super-regulator the Legal Services Board to inform its next three-year strategy, says that by 2020:

  • Self-lawyering will be commonplace as consumers seek alternatives to lawyers or use them in different ways, through technology-enabled DIY solutions, unbundled provision and new regulated and unregulated entrants. Meanwhile calls will grow for radical solutions, such as an inquisitorial style of justice and online dispute resolution, that cut lawyers out altogether. 
  • Information technology will go to the heart of all aspects of legal services. This will assist consumers but also bring new ‘digital detriments’ to contend with. ‘IT has the potential to greatly enhance access to justice, but it shouldn’t be viewed as a panacea since many people aren’t online and it can’t always substitute effectively for the human touch,’ the report says.
  • Consumers will be empowered by strengthened rights, more transparency on legal service providers’ performance and greater access to redress. However the panel says: ‘We see a risk that vulnerable consumers won’t benefit fully from the reforms as initiatives end up most benefiting those who are already empowered.’
  • Legal services is likely to become a more business-like environment. ‘This will deliver benefits but also bring sophisticated marketing and commercial practices seen in other markets that have caused detriment. As professional boundaries continue to blur there will be greater focus on whether competition between groups of lawyer is working fairly.’ Meanwhile, ‘unregulated businesses are likely to become a greater presence in the market’.

Overall, the report notes that ‘lawyers have been a conservative profession which has successfully resisted change. However, if anything is certain about the future, it’s surely that lawyers can no longer withstand the major forces that are reshaping all markets’.

Elisabeth Davies (pictured), the consumer panel’s chair, said: ‘Technology and a more business-like environment will benefit consumers, but also bring new types of problems to contend with. Maintaining a robust safety net will be vital and this will require regulators to update their toolkits, acquire new skills and forge new partnerships with national and local consumer protection agencies.’