Consumer champions have urged regulators to push their transparency agenda after new figures showed gaps in public understanding.
An annual survey, commissioned by the Legal Services Consumer Panel, found just 6% of legal clients found the price on the provider’s website, and another 4% found it through an advertisement or on a price comparison website. The most common areas of law where people had consulted a comparison site were employment disputes and housing problems.
In almost two-thirds of cases, consumers found out about the price of services only through discussions with the provider.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority, along with other legal regulators, has proposed forcing firms to publish prices on their websites – as was proposed by the Competition and Markets Authority following a study of the sector last year.
The panel’s survey had better news in terms of service levels, with four-fifths of clients saying they were satisfied with the service.
Panel chair Dr Jane Martin said the survey demonstrated that regulators should not ease up in their attempts to ensure lawyers provide more information up-front. ‘It is very disappointing to note that change has been slow and basic information is not sufficiently available to help consumers make a proper choice,’ she said.
‘The sector now has both the challenge and opportunity to put this right as all the regulators are working together to implement the recommendations of the Competition and Markets Authority.’
The proportion of consumers saying it was easy to compare providers has fallen from 57% in 2016 to 48% in 2017. It also showed disparities in accessing information between white British and black, Asian and minority ethnic consumers. BAME consumers also reported lower levels of knowledge of how to complain.
For the past seven years the panel has commissioned YouGov to conduct an annual survey, taking a national representative sample of 1,822 adults and a sample of 1,625 people who had been legal clients in the past two years. Respondents took part during February and March this year.
Less than a quarter (24%) of consumers said they did not have a wide range of choice when choosing a provider, compared with 28% in 2016.
In the general population, 27% of people felt they had a good knowledge of what lawyers do, a proportion changed in three years. Younger members of the public were less likely (17%) to say they understood what lawyers do, compared with 33% of those aged over 55.
For the first time, the survey was broken down between England and Wales: Welsh residents (51%) were more likely to have a will than English (36%), although Welsh consumers were less likely to benefit from fixed fees or the option of unbundling.
Law Society president Joe Egan commented: ‘For transparency to be useful, consumers need to get the right information at the right time, so they can make informed choices based on relevant information. The remedies for gaps in consumer understanding revealed by the tracker survey are not straightforward.
‘Consumers of legal services often have complex needs, some of which may only emerge over time, which is why so many people establish the price of a service via a conversation with the provider. We have developed a transparency toolkit to provide some guidelines and continue work to understand and help solicitors provide the most useful information for people with legal needs.’