Vulnerable clients’ problems can be exacerbated by lawyers acting in a ‘cold, clinical or chaotic’ manner, research for the oversight regulator has found.
The Legal Services Board also found evidence from interviews with clients that those with extra issues could feel an enforced sense of power imbalance or lack of agency if office conditions are not suited to their needs.
Researchers found some lawyers had failed to set and manage expectations, used technical terms and jargon and showed a lack of empathy and compassion, particularly where clients had experienced traumatic issues such as relationship breakdowns or employment issues.
But the research also found examples where lawyers had reduced feelings of vulnerability and reassured and empowered people seeking their advice. This came through creating a warm and welcoming environment, good case management and using easy-to-understand language.
The LSB commissioned Community Research to interview professionals working in 10 support and advice organisations and 30 people who had used a lawyer in the previous 18 months. Of those 30, all were deemed ‘situationally vulnerable’ while some had additional risk factors identified.
The research echoed existing evidence that people are inherently vulnerable when they approach a lawyer, and that working with legal professionals is particularly hard for those in certain situations.
The report concluded that there must be more consistent practice across the profession and a standard approach where clients feel heard and understood, can understand the legal implications of their issues and feel in control of how their matter is managed.
It added: ‘There are issues in the wider system that contribute to vulnerability – lack of join-up between agencies; poor understanding (across the system and wider society) of some experiences, needs and social issues; and demand outstripping (affordable) supply.
‘However, the examples here also show how much influence legal professionals hold over people’s vulnerability. There are many examples in this report of legal professionals who reduced participants’ vulnerability. However, there are also plenty of examples of practice that exacerbated vulnerability.’
The LSB says it will use the research to inform policy on helping people with particular circumstances such as those in poverty, those with disabilities or those who have suffered domestic abuse.
Chief executive Matthew Hill said: ‘It is vital that legal services are designed and delivered with these vulnerabilities in mind. When that happens, everyone benefits.
‘So, we urge regulators, legal services providers, and others to develop their understanding of vulnerability and consider how they can support the development of inclusive services that meet the needs of everyone.’
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