Working with the Legal Services Consumer Panel, the LSB commissioned BDRC Continental to undertake a study of the consumer experience of legal services delivered online compared to face to face, using divorce as a case study.  The full report can be found here and the survey data here.

Why did we undertake this research?

For regulators, online services challenge traditional models of regulation which impose high entry barriers as a proxy for the quality of service delivered. As online services grow, inevitably regulators will need to develop new approaches to regulation to tackle the new risks.

The Legal Services Board retains an interest both as access to legal advice is an important issue with regard to concerns over access to justice and as an example of the developing challenge of regulating online legal services that have little relationship to traditional professional title.

Divorce was chosen as the case study area for this project because online divorce services have been available for over ten years and are well established in the market; there is a wealth of official data on wider trends in divorce in which to contextualise findings; legal needs survey data provides a rich picture of how people use legal services for divorce, and the incidence of related factors such as domestic violence, children, and finance issues. An LSB summary of this information was shared with researchers at the start of this project, and is available here.

By using divorce as case study, and a research method to control for outcome bias, the research provides a picture of these issues from the perspective of the consumer.

What new information did this research provide?

The evidence in this report suggests that there are no fundamental issues with the service delivery provided by either online and face to face providers of divorce.

The experiences of those going through the process was captured using a research methodology called Tracktion.

While sample sizes are small, the research allows some comparisons between the different groups in terms of their experience of the service. Further the overall characteristics of research participants are similar to those recorded in the wider divorce statistics. Of those using online services, the chief earner in the divorce was more likely to be in a higher managerial position. Overall income levels between face to face and online channels were similar, but the value of the estate for people using face to face services was twice that of online petitioners.

There appears to be a high degree of self-selection with consumers making rational choices about choosing the online route. For example, people consciously make the online choice thinking it’s the best option for them and most online divorces are amicable, follow a period of separation and are less likely to involve mediation. Even so, a significant minority of petitioners (30%) were not confident about using online providers before starting the process.

In terms of selecting a provider, 72% of online petitioners used the internet whereas those using a face to face service were more likely to rely upon advice or recommendations from friends or family (44%).  In terms of choice of specific provider, for online providers, the main reason was the cost of the advice (31%) compared to face to face services (8%). For face to face services, the main reason was their reputation (27%). For online providers, the main reason was the cost of the advice (31%), followed by reputation. For face to face users, the main reason was the firm’s reputation (27%), followed by location.

In terms of speed, the post event survey results indicated that online applicants were more likely to progress through the process at a faster pace than those using a face to face method. 83% of online divorces received their decree nisi within eight weeks of submitting their petition, compared to 65% of face to face divorces. When interviewing petitioners ‘in the moment’ this timescale was reduced to an average of six weeks for both online petitioners and those using a face to face method. Taken together, this illustrates that there is little difference in the speed at which petitioners reach this stage between the two service delivery channels.

Online divorces were reported to be significantly cheaper than those delivered face to face. However the amicability of the divorce, and thus the complexity and time required on the case, are likely to be relevant factors here. Online divorces, perhaps because they are likely to be more straightforward, were more likely to be quoted on a fixed fee basis.  Although many people (both online and face to face) felt costs were as expected, there was a proportion who thought that costs were higher than expected. This is significantly higher for those using a face to face provider (41%) than online (19%). The small proportion of consumers who did negotiate achieved 100% success rate on getting the fees down.

Consumers’ experience of the divorce process proved easier than expected – and this was particularly pronounced among online petitioners. Almost 9 in 10 online petitioners said they would broadly get any future divorce via an online provider.  The key issues related mainly to managing people’s expectations. There are good levels of satisfaction across all providers and no fundamental issues to address. Where there was dissatisfaction, online users were more likely to be disappointed with the quality of service, the information they received and how they were treated. Communication and administrative errors were more of an issue for online petitioners. For those using face to face services, the estimates of cost were more likely and caused more dissatisfaction, along with the quality of service and the information or communication provided throughout.

Although it is difficult to separate the channels from the provider, it is clear that online users are nearly three times as likely to recommend their online provider when compared to users of a typical high street law firm.

Overall from the consumer experience of the process, the research did not find any evidence of any regulatory risks arising from the delivery of services online. While there is room for service improvement in both methods of delivery, there is no evidence to suggest that petitioners initially chose the ‘wrong’ channel and therefore changed midway through the process

How are we going to use this research?

The report findings will allow the LSB and LSCP to target future work looking at online legal services or suggest areas of interest for regulators wishing to respond to the challenges posed by online advice.