Umbrella regulator the Legal Services Board hailed publication of the biggest ever legal needs survey in England and Wales by indicating it will seek further liberalisation of the marketplace.
'Everyone should be able to access professional support if they need it,’ said LSB chair Dr Helen Phillips. 'However, this survey reveals a significant access to justice gap. For a variety of reasons people do not always seek legal advice. Many fail to identify the issues they face as being legal in nature. They perhaps class it as a housing issue or a financial problem or put it down to bad luck. This means they then don’t seek for the right kind of help.’
She added: 'Those who get legal support are more likely to be satisfied with the outcome, so it’s vital we remove barriers that prevent people accessing help. This includes building legal capability and encouraging people to shop around for services. When people understand their legal rights and responsibilities, it makes a real difference to their confidence and their ability to access justice.’
Phillips did not allude to legal aid and what the Law Society described as the 'swingeing' cuts which have removed access to justice for large swathes of the population.
'Legal aid has been decimated,' said Society president Simon Davis. 'This survey shows near unequivocal support for legal aid but as people do not understand which issues are covered or if they are eligible, many who should have publicly funded legal advice simply will not get it. Our future justice system should be one that prioritises public legal education so people understand their rights, legal issues and how to access justice.'
The findings show 'when people do get professional legal advice – particularly from a solicitor – they are more able to resolve legal problems effectively, and far more likely to view the justice system as fair, even if they lose their case', Davis stressed.
He added: 'While most people resolve minor legal issues – like faulty goods or parking fines – without professional advice, it is a cornerstone of justice that everyone should be able to get professional legal advice when they need it, regardless of wealth or status.’
Sarah Chambers, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel said: 'I would like to congratulate the LSB and the Law Society for this mammoth piece of research that offers the sector and beyond a rich data source and insight into the legal needs of those who use legal services.
'We must now take the findings and insights from this research and develop policies that address barriers to legal services and improve legal capability. This aim is likely to be most effective if we adopt a collaborative approach amongst the breadth of stakeholders operating in and around the sector. And as always, the panel will work hard to facilitate solutions.'
An SRA spokesperson said: 'We welcome this comprehensive report, which provides a timely reminder of many people’s experience of legal services. Our reforms are intended to contribute to wider work to address some of the challenges, including asking firms to publish details of their services and pricing. We know there is more to be done and look forward to working together to make sure people can get the help they need.'