The True Impact of Cuts to Funding
Legal Aid funding will never be restored to previous levels.
The impact according to a LSB survey of over 8000 consumers and their experiences of legal matters, is that an enormous 57% of respondents chose to handle their matters alone or with informal advice. 14% opted to ‘do nothing’. Only 10% had electively sought out professional help.
In my previous piece on technical innovation, I mentioned that this unmet legal need could be worth over £48billion against our current ‘met legal need’ retail market of £12billlion.
We know the legal industry cares about ‘plugging the Legal Aid funding gap’ by their willing participation in advice surgeries and pro-bono work. Despite this great voluntary resource, the fundamental problem remains, that the unmet need is getting bigger by the day which leads to poorer outcomes and harms access to justice.
There is an enormous change in expectations since LASPO, not only for consumers who are undoubtedly having to take on far more legal work themselves, but also for law firms, court staff, judges and advice agencies.
The loss of legal aid work has had to be replaced by new services, but there has been a significant impact on many firms, including some who closed in the aftermath of the reforms as it cut off a supply of work.
At the same time, the civil and criminal courts are also facing unprecedented cuts. Court offices are rarely open, communications between MCOL and clients are ten to fourteen days in arrears and it is common to receive Orders several days out of date, placing many people in technical breach of rulings. Last year the MOJ provided over £3 million in funding to charities supporting litigants in person and the CAB receives tens of millions in public funding.
It strikes me that with all the digital innovation we could potentially deploy with secure document management, AML and client file management, alongside other changes like decentralised offices and the ability to reach clients nationally via digital marketing, that perhaps with some diversification and modification, law firms could seize an opportunity from the skills gap that clearly exists between free advice like CAB and fully instructed representation.
Legal aid funding is never going to be reinstated, so we have some choices to make about how we think about this problem. There is a very direct link between well-functioning justice systems and healthy economies. If we allow the erosion to carry on unchecked, there is a risk that alongside the technical disruption threatening us, we also risk disappearing as a normal and every day professional service to instruct.
If a ‘middle ground’ exists, what format might it take?
Well in principle, we need to explore the concept of regulated, supervised legal advice work being performed very cost effectively across digital channels. By offering legal advice digitally, there is greater reach and an ability to achieve such help cost effectively. This itself can play a significant role in protecting access to justice but ironically, offers the law firm a perfect digital marketing tool to demonstrate their knowledge and compassionate nature. Recognising this latter need, we chose to open-up LegalBeagles the UK’s most popular free legal information site, to law firms wishing to ‘volunteer’. The forum has a reach of 1.7 million consumers and SMEs many looking for impartial help searching for a lawyer.
The LegalBeagles online forum is a platform allowing people to share opinions and legal concerns and receive answers and guidance a trusted independent community of ‘invisible experts and friends’. The open, public nature of such advice keeps standards high and acts as a useful online triage or diagnostic tool for what legal actions could be considered and to signpost towards professional services if appropriate.
What sort of platforms could provide such a service?
Forums like Mumsnet, MSE, UKBusinessForums are examples of communities where people may ask legal type questions (Mumsnet has even forged a relationship with a provider of divorce law). Even social participation in Facebook groups can provide an opportunity to offer up some help when needed. And with 33% of consumers experiencing a legal problem in the last 3 years, it will be a frequent occurrence.
On LegalBeagles, we allow member law firms to provide one hour of free legal help each week, displaying law firm name and branding, but the posts must be genuinely helpful, it is expressly forbidden to post comments like, ‘I’m Dave from Smiths Solicitors, the best divorce solicitors in Wolverhampton’, that is just touting and would be strongly disliked by the community.
These volunteers are achieving something extremely valuable while they seemingly give away their time for free. Every single post creates a permanent digital legacy which has strong SEO power and will point many people in the future to such posts when they undertake Google searches around similar content. It may seem as if the post is just helping one individual but it is then read by thousands of others, it gives a great impression of a law firm helping tackle access top justice but it also builds trust in their brand and familiarity with the firm which could prove vital in the future when the consumer remembers that ‘lovely lawyer’ who helped out freely on another matter.
Right now, the next step is to invest time into working out how to offer lower cost digital services and consider innovative legal products such as unbundling of certain documents consumers may struggle to draft.
It would also be wise to consider diversifying into services for which there is growing public concern and interest, such as data protection, online identity fraud, financial miss-selling, new working contracts, immigration post Brexit, cryptocurrency fraud etc.
As these will be the areas causing consumers legal problems in 5-10 years, why not start adapting to these needs and create low cost digital products to anticipate the future legal needs of an increasingly connected market to ensure that the justice cuts don’t signal the end……. but rather embrace a new type of profession which is much more digitally engaged with the legal needs of our society and much better placed to meet the unmet need.