How do individuals respond to legal problems?

The framework developed in legal needs surveys affords a more insightful consumer based understanding of how individuals experience and respond to legal problems.

Using the findings of the 2006-09 Civil and Social Justice Survey for example, 36% of the adult population experience a civil and social justice problem over a three year period. Of these, 9% take no action and 49% seek advice. Only 29% seek advice from traditional forms of legal adviser. Further only 13.3% sought advice from solicitors. Rates of problem incidence over time are relatively stable, with 36% of survey respondents experiencing one or more civil justice problems over a three year period. Incidence rates vary along a range of dimensions: “Problems were far from being randomly distributed across the 2006-9 survey population. For example, those more vulnerable to social exclusion tended to report more problems than others. In addition, the proportion of those in vulnerable groups increased as the number of problems reported increased”1In particular, Black and ‘Other’ (non-White, non-Black and non-Asian) respondents, along with those in high density housing, lone parents, co-habitees with children, those on benefits, those between the ages of 25 and 34 and victims of crime tended to report suffering from multiple problems.

Consumer and neighbour problems have the highest rate of incidence across all of the different dimensions, however people vulnerable to social exclusion (eg lone parents, those on benefits, those who have a long-term illness or disability and victims of crime) report problems more often than others. The association between consumer problems and affluence also results in higher income respondents reporting problems more frequently.

While this research shows that the likelihood of seeking advice increases with seriousness of problem, it also identifies a key factor in determining how people respond is the extent to which people characterise problems as ‘legal’ drives behaviour. Characterisations vary by individual demographics and by problem type. The Civil and Social Justice Survey findings show that while around 80% of personal injury problems are classified as legal, this falls to around a third for rented housing problems: “Action take depends on characterisation of a problem as legal - Overall, whereas respondents said they would seek help from a lawyer in relation to 44% of problems characterised as legal, the same was true of only 11% of problems not characterised as such. For example, when problems concerning home ownership were not characterised as legal, just 11% of respondents suggested lawyers as a source of help. This rose to 55% when problems were characterised as legal2”.

A wide range of surveys show consumers in need of more information about legal services. In one 2009 survey, 28% complained about the general lack of information available on the law3. Another survey about consumers’ attitudes to the purchase of legal services reported that “legal processes and procedures were often regarded as somewhat of a “black box”, a service or process that is purchased without fully understanding exactly what is being provided, and what is involved in the service. The purchase of legal services is therefore approached with some trepidation, although recommendation tends to provide reassurance. There is also a general perception that legal services are expensive, and therefore concerns about cost and affordability”4.

The 2012 consumer survey, using the same legal need methodology looked at 28 different problem types experienced by individual consumers. This is wider in scope than the Civil and Social Justice survey, so as to cover a range of transactional legal problems and deeper in terms of the questions asked about the nature of the services received. However there were similar findings in the two surveys.

The survey is representative of the UK adult population, and shows that over a three year period 49% of the adult population experience one or more legal problems. This research found that Social group DE were more likely to do nothing, as were people on lower incomes; 17% of those with household income of less than £20,000 took no action compared to 12% overall. But a lack of knowledge of services and perception of services is still a key factor. Overall 44% of ‘lumpers’ – those who take no action – thought nothing could be done, or they could not get any help, or even that advice was available.

This was in part driven by a perception of services on offer – costs too much, not worth the hassle, do not trust lawyers, previous advice not helpful. The flowchart of responses to this wider range of legal issues is shown below. Of the 40.5% of people who do not seek advice, 3.8% do try to get advice but for a variety of reasons end up taking no action. However over a third of people take a decision to handle their problem without seeking advice.

Why take no action?

A proportion of individuals take no action in response to a legal problem. For individual consumers it has been suggested that this is because of the infrequent use of legal services: “The episodic nature of law-related problems is a key factor. Although law-related issues are commonplace they occur periodically, often around key life events that are separated in time. As a result most people, most of the time, don’t feel they need to think about the law. Instead they wait until a problem occurs and then try to acquire the knowledge needed to deal with it.”5

This finding is supported by other research. For example in relation to crime: “Those with a better understanding of the police investigative process, for instance, might decide not to have legal advice when they are being dealt with for minor offences or if they assume they will not be interviewed by the police. On the other hand, those with less understanding, such as those whose first language was not English, for example, were found to be less likely to have a solicitor. In terms of seeking advice in police stations, the seriousness of the offence had a significant impact, with increased use of legal advisers in police stations for ‘serious’ offences. In the police station, binary ethnicity had a significant impact on use of legal adviser with BME respondents more likely to request legal advice. Using ethnicity based on five categories, this impact was seen to be predominantly due to an increased use of legal adviser among Mixed Ethnicity and Black respondents, who were significantly more likely to request legal advice than White British respondents. Asian respondents were slightly more likely than White British respondents not to request legal advice, though this effect was far from significant”6. The same research highlights different take up of advice among those with mental illness, learning difficulties and language barriers. A survey of solicitors reported that Police intervention and/or misinformation were thought to be the main reasons why people failed to request legal advice at police stations7.

For civil legal services, reasons why people don’t get help have been reported to include:

  • Fear of making a bad situation worse,
  • Sense of powerlessness,
  • “There‟s nothing you can do”,
  • Not knowing what to do,
  • Is there someone you can phone/write to? Who would that be?,
  • Antipathy toward legal procedures.8

There appears to be a low level of understanding of legal services generally. One piece of research found that two-thirds of those sampled professed little or no knowledge about what lawyers do. Professed knowledge broadly increased with wealth and higher social grades but even with those at the highest incomes (£50k+) over half had little or no knowledge about what lawyers do.9

These findings are supported by the 2012 consumer survey.

Why handle alone?

The 2012 consumer survey shows that 36.6% of people handle their legal problems without seeking advice. The range of reasons mentioned are shown below. In most cases the main reason was an active decision to do it by themselves – reasons included having enough time (done it before, thought it would be easy to resolve, confident you can do it) – a healthy part of access to justice for society. It might be that this is because of the simplicity of the issue at hand in terms of the law and the availability of information, and any potential adverse consequences.

But consumers also reported not knowing about services that might help – did not know advice was available, did not know where to get advice in some areas, the biggest being clinical negligence and personal injury, which is even more challenging given the level of  advertising about personal injury claims. Perhaps of more concern is the proportion of those who dealt with their problem alone because of a more negative assessment of the of services available – take too long, cost too much, had help before which was not useful.

While experiences vary along consumer demographic lines, and across problem types, of those dealing with the problem on their own overall 51% found the process of handling the legal need alone easy, with only 18% finding it difficult. Respondents reported that the experience of handling alone was more frequently easier than they had expected (where 44% thought it would be easy before the process). It appears that the experience of handling a legal need alone is normally a positive one, as the majority (69%) would do it again and a majority would recommend others to handle a similar legal need alone.

This mix of reasons can be found in other research. Research into cost and court procedures highlights that individual consumers do not use legal representation because they do not believe they need to.

This research found “a statistically significant relationship between legal representation and age, work pattern and socio-economic group. Those with legal representation are more likely to be women, aged 25-44, work (full or part-time) and be from socio-economic groups C2DE. Those without legal representation are more likely to be men, aged 65+, have a household income of more than £45,000 and be more certain that their case will have a positive outcome. The results also show that those who are sure/quite sure that their case will have the desired outcome are less likely to have legal representation than those who are not sure, suggesting that confidence is a factor in whether or not people feel that they require legal representation (61% compared to 77%)”10. So in some incidences at least an active decision is taken not to use legal services.

Potential latent demand

For the purposes of this analysis we classify those that take action in response to problems, but handle alone or who try and fail to get legal advice as the possible latent demand for legal service. This is distinct from the group who take no action.  We are making an assumption that some of this latent legal demand is driven by a perception of existing legal services as not offering value with regard to the problem faced by the consumer.

Research repeatedly suggests that failure to access services is a combination of perceived costs, actual cost and poor service. For example:

Survey of the general public:

“Legal processes and procedures were often regarded as somewhat of a “black box”, a service or process that is purchased without fully understanding exactly what is being provided, and what is involved in the service. The purchase of legal services is therefore approached with some trepidation, although recommendation tends to provide reassurance. There is also a general perception that legal services are expensive, and therefore concerns about cost and affordability.11

Survey of legal service users:

  • 29% of respondents complained that the cost of legal assistance precluded them from getting help with their problem.
  • 28% complained about the general lack of information available on the law.
  • “A few respondents have complained about the opening hours of services. For example a client with an employment law problem complained that solicitors and NfP agencies only opened during office hours and he could not get time off work to attend an appointment. Other clients complained that due to their disabilities they could not attend open door services to queue and because agencies did not answer their phones they were unable to make an appointment to see someone. A Mr G. who uses sign language tried to contact various solicitors, but none could help because “…solicitors are usually not prepared to pay for an interpreter, so who should? This is a huge issue for deaf people requiring legal advice12.”

Research looking at advice need of lone parents:

This identified three ‘Access Problem’ themes where advice was sought:

  • Not knowing where to turn: “For most problem types, where lone parents sought advice, between 25% and 50% of cases found it either difficult or impossible to obtain.”
  • Lack of affordable advice provision: “12% indicated that they had been unable to find anyone to provide legal aid. Financial eligibility and the statutory charge were common concerns identified by lone parents as barriers to seeking advice”. 
  • “21% said an advice source was too expensive. Solicitors were by far the most common target of this complaint”.
  • Struggling to make contact: “25% had gone to an advice source, waited too long to be seen and given up. 23% felt an advice source had inappropriate opening hours. 15% were put off because an advice source did not provide appointments. However, 18% were put off because an appointment was provided too far in the future. 14% felt an advice source was too  intimidating”.
  • “Only 10% considered an advice source was too far to travel to.13

A survey of consumer experiences of legal services:

  • 56% said the process of seeking advice was either very easy or easy, 12% said either difficult or very difficult
  • 20% of respondents said that they had not sought advice even though it could have been beneficial. Most common reason was because it was too expensive (54%)14.

More information can be found in the 2012 consumer survey.

Further, in a number of state driven processes, statistics are kept and published on individuals making personal applications to the registry, court or tribunal. These can only ever be a proxy indicator for latent legal demand and there may be a range of reasons, as outlined above, why a consumer chooses to deal with a legal issue on their own. For example incidences where a consumer has taken legal advice as part of the process of coming to the tribunal will not be recorded in these statistics, nor do they allow any analysis of whether this is due to shifting demographics. However they do provide a level of indication of incidence of legal problem not converting into demand for legal services.

For non contentious probate, published HMCTS figures15 show that over one in three probate applications were made by individuals in 2009, rising from 28% of all non contentions probate applications in 2004 to 36% in 2010. At the same time the total volume of non contentious probate applications fell from 294k to 246k, while the number of contentious probate applications remained largely constant at around 0.05% of all probate applications. This demonstrates lower demand for solictors legal services in probate over time driven by lower incidence and fewer consumers entering the market.

For intellectual property, the Intellectual Property Office records whether an application was made by an unrepresented applicant: “These are commonly private individuals who are not represented by a trade mark or patent attorney, or other legal representative. Among these applicants however there will be a number that are partnerships, small businesses or larger concerns with in-house legal departments. It is fair to say though that the majority of these applicants (at least as far as trade marks are concerned) will be private individuals16.”

A detailed analysis of these different demand indicators can be found in the LSB’s baseline report.

The RIR found no published information in relation to use of legal advice in other areas, meaning the wider level of potential latent legal demand remains unknown. Commentary in America suggests that this form of latent demand does exist: “Consumer markets can be segmented by type of substantive practice and also by client demographics. For example, one specialist in divorce law may serve primarily a middle income class clientele community and another divorce practitioner has very wealthy clients with millions of dollars in assets. Yet, a large proportion of the consumer market remains underserved by the legal profession because of affordability and access issues17“.

Litigants in person

The Civil and Social Justice Survey shows that the way an individual responds to a legal problem is in part driven by the perceived seriousness of the problem. Therefore one indicator of latent legal demand can be considered to be the number of people who appear in court without legal representations – Litigants in person – with court being associated with the most serious form of legal dispute.

A 2007 study reported that “2 in 3 individuals (66%) go through the court process using legal representation although there are stark differences in usage depending on type of case”. This same research found that:

  • 83% cases which involve claiming money back go to court without legal representation because users believe these cases to be straightforward.
  • 8% cases seeking compensation go to court without legal representation
  • In family cases the level of cases without legal representation are 11% for the division of assets, 20% for child contact/residence, and 28% divorce. “These groups are more likely to have gone through mediation and failed to reach an amicable resolution so the support of a solicitor is considered to be important in bringing a case to a successful conclusion”.

The research highlights that individual consumers don’t use legal representation because they don‟t believe they need to: “There is a statistically significant relationship between legal representation and age, work pattern and socio-economic group: Those with legal representation are more likely to be women, aged 25-44, work (full or part-time) and be from socio-economic groups C2DE. Those without legal representation are more likely to be men, aged 65+, have a household income of more than £45,000 and be more certain that their case will have a positive outcome. The results also show that those who are sure/quite sure that their case will have the desired outcome are less likely to have legal representation than those who are not sure, suggesting that confidence is a factor in whether or not people feel that they require legal representation (61% compared to 77%)“.

Research into civil litigants in person found that, “some unrepresented litigants are in fact institutional repeat players (local authorities and housing associations in particular), whereas others are much more like the archetypical private litigants in person: individuals or small businesses.” 18This research broke down litigants in person into three types:

  • “Institutional litigants included the following: government bodies such as the DSS and the Collector of Taxes; local authorities; housing associations; health authorities and hospitals; quasi public bodies (e.g. the Motor Insurance Bureau, charities and schools); the police and fire authorities…..Institutional litigants in person who, in spite of the absence of independent, professionally qualified legal representation, are likely to be repeat players and may have sufficient expertise in house to do a similar job of representing themselves as an independent lawyer would do”.
  • Business litigants included sole traders, partnerships and (private or public) limited companies.
  • Individual litigants

The research reports that “more cases involved male unrepresented litigants than female unrepresented litigants: 48% of cases involved a male litigant in person, 38% involved a female litigant in person and 13% involved both a male and female litigation in person. It is also noticeable that in ancillary relief, divorces and injunction cases, if there was an unrepresented applicant, it was more often a woman that brought the application. Where the respondent was unrepresented, in ancillary relief, divorce and injunctions it was usually the man. The opposite was true for Children Act applications, unrepresented male applicants were more common than female applicants and unrepresented respondents were more likely to be women19.”

The lack of need for a solicitor was cited by respondents in research into unrepresented defendants in crime trials, stating either that their offence (eg drink driving) was too minor to warrant representation, or that they “didn‟t want to bother with the hassle”20. However in the same research:

  • Nearly one-fifth of unrepresented defendants indicated that they had sought representation but “could not find a solicitor.”
  • 10.8% of unrepresented defendants stated that they had wanted a solicitor but could not afford one.

A recent review of international published research on litigants in person reported that perceptions of affordability were a factor in why people choose not to use a lawyers services in court. The review summarises research from Australia: “there was a relationship between unavailability of legal aid and self-representation. It found that the Australian means test did not accurately reflect the level at the level representation. Other research did not examine this relationship directly. Some presented changes in legal funding eligibility as a possible explanation for increases in numbers of selfrepresented litigants and for research participant views that lawyers were too expensive, or they cannot afford alawyer21.”

In summary, the reasons why there are litigants in person are22:

  1. “Inability to afford representation (or unavailability of free or cheaper sources of help);
  2. A perception that that lawyers are not always perceived as necessary or best placed to advance the litigant‟s interests;
  3. The openness and supportiveness of courts to unrepresented litigants.”

These factors are key to understanding latent legal demand.

What is the relationship to income and response?

The litigants in person research points to costs of services being one of a range of factors driving use of legal services. Other research looking at the response to civil and social justice problems shows that,” after taking account of problem type, for problem types where legal aid is most available, people eligible for legal aid are significantly more likely to use lawyers than those on low incomes, but not eligible for legal aid23.” This is shown below.

Income/legal aid eligibilityNo ActionHandle AloneAdvisor (non-lawyer)Lawyer
Eligible for legal aid11.2%53.0%26.9%8.9%

The table shows the response to a civil and social justice problem, for those areas where legal aid is available, with similar proportions of those eligible for legal aid using a lawyer as those earning above £15,000. Other analysis compares the difference for those areas where legal aid is most available and where it is not (other)24.

This is in line with Citizens Advice view that new entrants and price competition will benefit those consumers who are not eligible for legal aid but cannot currently afford a solicitor25.

Individuals’ use of legal services

The Legal Services Consumer Panel reported that “Thirty-four per cent of people in England and Wales aged 16+ were found to have used legal services for personal matters in the last three years26“. 

The RIR has found a range of different surveys of uses of legal services by consumers, summarised in the table below.27

LCSP 2011 - Most recent matter in past 2 yearsMoJ 2009- Most recent matter in past 3 2009 - Most recent matter in past 2 years
Will writing20%18%12%
Family matters10%9%9%
Accident or injury claims9%9%15%
Housing, landlord or tenant problems4%3%-
Employment disputes5%2%12%
Any offences or criminal charges2%2%7%
Immigration matters1%2%3%
Problems with consumer services or goods4%1%-
Advice and appeals about benefits or tax credits1%1%-
Debt or hire purchase problems1%1%-

The 2010 baseline survey suggests that: ”Solicitors (mentioned by 94% of users) were by far the most commonly used provider for the most recent matters covered in the interview.  Barristers were used for 3% of matters. Less than 1% of users mentioned using independent notaries or licensed conveyancers while some other categories of authorised provider (trademark or patent attorney firm, independent legal executive and independent law costs draftsman) received no mentions. Overall, some form of authorised provider was used for 95% of matters. Five per cent of users mentioned using a non-authorised provider28.”

Looking specifically at solicitors:

  • 41% of the general public in England and Wales have used a solicitor in the past five years29.
  • 28% of BME people in England and Wales have used a solicitor in the past five years -most commonly for property transactions and Just over a fifth of the general public have used a solicitor for conveyancing work in the past five years.30

A detailed analysis of a range of potential demand indicators can be found in our baseline report. These are used in the absence of any information on volume of consumers using legal services overtime.