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Guest Blog - Cathy Gallagher

Unbundled legal services

Reflecting on objections

6 November 2015

Last year, the Consumer Panel's tracker survey found that one in five consumers were 'unbundling' their legal services. In its simplest terms, 'unbundling' separates a package of legal services into parts or tasks. The consumer and the legal services provider then agree which parts of the package the provider will provide, and which tasks the consumer will undertake. For example, the client may agree to take on responsibility for some the documentation preparation.

In September the Panel and the LSB published joint research carried out by Ipsos MORI, into the provision and perceptions of those involved in using unbundled legal services. The research found that, in general, unbundling worked for all parties involved, although it tended to be more suitable for consumers who have the skills to take on tasks. Consumers found it to be an effective way of saving on costs, and, to some extent, in empowering them. Providers saw it as one way to meet the rising challenge of increased self-lawyering.

In response to this research, there was some criticism in the media that the Panel is promoting a service that isn't suitable for all consumers - something we acknowledged from the beginning.

Some commentators reiterated the argument that 'unbundling isn't appropriate for vulnerable clients and those who aren't as literate'

We've been quite clear from the outset of not just this work, but other pieces, that there isn't a one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of access to justice. Consumers are not a homogenous group, as such different solutions will apply and fulfil different needs. This means that unbundling may be suitable to meet the access to justice needs of some consumers, but won't be adequate for others. If there is a group that can be reached with unbundled services, then they absolutely should be.

'it's too high risk - no sane law firm would open themselves up to potential negligence claims'.

The practitioner firms that were interviewed in the research offered mixed views on risk. Generally they suggested they would unbundle to the extent at which they felt they could manage the risks. We recognise that there is currently no information about how the Legal Ombudsman might deal with complaints about unbundled services as a specific case type. That said, we have recommended that LeO should take a look at its caseload and produce case studies along with an outline of their approach to dealing with these sorts of cases.

'The regulators don't allow for us to do half a job, how do we know we won't get hamstrung for just doing what the client wanted?'

Part of the LSB's aim in jointly commissioning the research was to identify whether or not there were any regulatory barriers to unbundling. In the follow up to the research we ran a session with the regulators, amongst other organisations, to discuss any impacts there were on the regulatory framework. There is certainly an acknowledgement that PII arrangements could be challenging.

It seems to be that so much of unbundling comes down to the importance of the client-lawyer relationship - who is responsible for what, making sure it is understood and then making sure it is documented. Now is the time to recognise the changing nature of casework engagement in the areas of law examined in this study that, as it moves to segmented parcels of service provision. Different sectors and representative bodies will now need to engage together to create an effective net of consumer legal advice and support provision.

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