Finally help is at hand for consumers uneasy about lawyers and baffled by jargon. It’s only taken about five years and goodness knows how much money on countless extraneous surveys and research, but this week sees the launch of the Legal Choices website, designed especially for you, the consumer, by those venerable people who regulate the legal profession.
Proving they can work together (and possibly even providing grist to the mill of those of us arguing we only need one legal regulator), the seven legal regulators have come up with something to help consumers navigate the legal system. In the words of Antony Townsend, chief executive of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA):
“… for the first time (it) brings together fully independent and impartial information about every type of lawyer in England and Wales. The website aims to empower consumers by providing them with the right information they might need to make good choices about legal issues and lawyers.”
So far so good; but is it any good? Amazingly, given some of the consumer-facing stuff to have come out of the regulators thus far, it’s not at all bad. For a start, not only does it look the part (ie nothing like a legal website), it is mobile friendly, which is nothing less than miraculous for a law-related website. It seems things have come a long way.
I can’t claim to have read every single word on the site, but it does at least seem to have all the stuff you’d need if you were embarking on some sort of legal journey. It suggests which issues you can get help for, the types of lawyers you may have the (mis)fortune to encounter, what it might cost you and how to complain. And on the whole, the site manages to get the language right, informative but uncomplicated.
That said, just as Quality Solicitors made quite a few of us cringe with their recent attempt to make consumers ‘love their lawyer’ (does anyone know if this is working?) the Legal Choices website veers into the unnecessary and possibly even patronising with its surveys about your favourite crisp flavour and talk of omelettes for tea.
Consumers find legalease complicated because it’s suited lawyers to keep it that way, and the process appears daunting because it is unfamiliar. What we need is clear and trustworthy information, not a website trying to be our friend. We want the people behind a website to appreciate our perspective and communicate with us in a way we can easily understand. We do not want the law to be fun and as long as a website is designed and written with our needs in mind we don’t need it to be dumbed down.
Maybe I’m just a bit on the curmudgeonly side, but I’d love to know what the site is planning to do with all the survey and poll data it gets. I can’t see how it will be representative enough to be of much use and I am not sure how many people looking for help with a legal problem will want to take time out to see how much legal jargon they understand (I got 10 out of 10, which just shows I’ve been hanging around lawyers for too long); much better to have an easy-to-search glossary.
Contrary to the views of the more cautious and conservative on regulators’ boards, it is an opportunity missed that Legal Choices did not take the brave step of developing a ‘TripAdvisor’ for lawyers. Whether they like it or not, sites offering lawyer comparisons and reviews are springing up all over the web. In time it is likely one or two will emerge as fairly reputable market leaders, but until then consumers could be easily confused by the number of sites to choose from or end up making a bad choice because the comparison criteria are too simplistic.
More importantly, I’d want to know what the regulators are doing to make the information on Legal Choices available to those without internet access. It is surely these vulnerable and hard-to-reach groups who most need help understanding and navigating the legal system, even if it is not the regulators’ job to fill the gap left by legal aid.
This website is undoubtedly a good start in demystifying the law for consumers and making it less daunting to access legal support. However, the real change in empowering consumers will only come when government starts to encourage and invest in legal education so everyone understands their rights and responsibilities and how to uphold them. Until then, it’s all really just a drop in the ocean.
Louise is a consumer champion and communications specialist. Before this, she ran a successful campaign for change in the legal sector (resulting in the Legal Services Act), worked in a law firm and at the Law Society. She is a trustee of the Public Law Project and cares about justice, fairness and cake.