Consumers are more likely to base a decision to seek legal advice on the reputation, expertise and location of a law firm than on the cost, Legal Services Consumer Panel research has shown. Yet price nevertheless remains an important factor in the choices consumers make.
Fear about potential costs is one of the most significant barriers standing in the way of consumers getting the advice they need. And we know that fewer than half of consumers with legal problems seek legal advice.
Consumers have suggested that when they find it difficult to choose between lawyers they often look, in vain, for pricing information as a means of informing a final decision. What this means is that consumers’ perceptions of cost are often not based on solid information.
The Legal Services Board is interested in the prices of legal services. We are interested in them as indicators of the nature of services available to consumers and the extent of competition in the legal sector. Economists would say that when markets are working well, effective competition encourages firms to deliver benefits to customers in terms of lower prices, higher quality and more choice.
This in turn encourages greater use of the services on offer to the mutual benefit of both supplier and consumer.
The relationship between lower prices, higher quality and more choice is crucial for a well-functioning market. Minimum quality standards are non-negotiable, whatever price is charged. The regulatory system protects minimum standards in both the consumer and public interest. Once these have been met legal businesses are free to compete vigorously by offering consumers a variety of service offerings at a range of price points.
We have commissioned OMB Research to help us begin to fill the gap in knowledge about the prices of legal services. With the anonymous involvement of lawyers and firms across England and Wales, the study, which begins today, will focus on scenarios in the areas of conveyancing, divorce, wills, probate and powers of attorney.
This is a new avenue of research for the legal sector and we do not underestimate the challenges it presents. Every legal services consumer has different needs, which can make it difficult for legal professionals to assess the time and expertise needed, the likely cost of providing the service and how this will relate to the price charged to the consumer.
Richard Moriarty is chief executive at the Legal Services Board