Can unbundling help to improve access to justice?

My last two blogs have focused respectively on legal advice deserts, and particular difficulties encountered by ethnic minority communities using legal services.

It is easier to diagnose these problems than it is to find solutions, let alone the means to implement them.  Without reversing some of the cuts in funding for legal aid and free legal advice services, it is hard to see how we can make significant improvements.

We must continue to press for vital funding to be restored, in an intelligent and well-targeted way, to tackle these problems.  But while we are waiting, we should also consider how legal service providers could be encouraged to provide a better service for hard to reach groups, beyond just giving their services on a pro bono basis, which is clearly not sustainable on the scale needed.  Making innovative use of new technology is one way to provide legal services more efficiently, and therefore less expensively.  Such changes are already happening, though there is scope for this to be accelerated and for more focus to be attached to those at the bottom end of the “value” spectrum (i.e. not just those businesses and high net worth individuals who can afford to pay large bills, where most of the innovation so far has been targeted).

There is also significant untapped potential in offering services in an unbundled format – in other words, where the work that needs to be done is divided, on an agreed basis, between one or more legal providers and the client.  This can significantly reduce the cost to the client, while enabling the provider to maintain profitable business with groups who would otherwise struggle to do it all themselves or might use the services of uninsured and possibly unskilled advisers.

It is very disappointing, therefore, that we have seen a consistent decrease in the use of unbundling as a percentage of legal services delivered from 19% in 2015 to 16% in 2020. We hosted a roundtable last month with a wide range of individuals from regulatory bodies, legal service providers and other stakeholders.  There was widespread consensus that more could and should be done to support providers and consumers access and use this type of service.   More information should be provided, with assistance from the regulators and the representative bodies, to help both consumers and providers understand how unbundling can be done, and how to overcome any risks.  There is no single model for unbundling, as different solutions will work in different circumstances.  The benefits are manifest: a real case study presented by Rocket Lawyer at our roundtable showed that consumers saved 40-50% in legal fees.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority is considering a possible pilot project, involving other regulators, on the potential for, and benefits of, greater unbundling of legal services to consumers.  We wish them very well in this endeavour.