The greatest happiness of the greatest number

Guest Blog – Marlene Winfield – Panel member Marlene Winfield ponders over new legal research

Marlene WinfieldSitting in Bentham House recently, I recalled law philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s watchwords: it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong. Two pieces of research commissioned by the Legal Services Board, that were being presented to a group of legal academics, practitioners, regulators, policy-makers and law students, seemed to echo that thought.

One (by Linstock Communications) looked at the tools available in law, health and other sectors to help people make good decisions to resolve problems. This compared ‘Just In Time’ tools – used at the point when a decision is needed – with ‘Just In Case’ tools that prepare you for problems that may happen sometime in the future.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Just In Time tools tended to have more impact. Immediacy made people more willing to use them to get to grips with a problem and their options for solving it, including dealing with uncertainty. At the same time, people were a bit wary of tools they were not used to, and they wondered about hidden agendas that might be influencing the resulting recommendations. Just In Case tools were a harder sell because people did not need them at the time – and no doubt hoped they never would! While these tools did increase understanding of problems and ways to resolve them, what was learned was rarely applied when problems arose later on.

The other study (by Professor Pascoe Pleasance and Dr. Nigel Balmer) looked at how people resolve legal problems. It found that what people did about a problem depended on a mix of things including whether they saw it as a legal problem, their perception (often incorrect) of the likely costs of getting help, how serious they thought the problem was, how long they’d had it, their own confidence and capabilities, prevailing social norms, and their knowledge of legal services.

The second study also found that when people made informed decisions about what services they needed, available services were often a poor match for need, especially for vulnerable consumers. And if people did not get to the right place quickly, every referral to yet another service resulted in some dropping out. All this suggests creative thinking is needed about the many ways to resolve problems beyond the traditional routes, including using new technology.

There was much else besides. There were pointers about public legal education, decision support, and giving people what they need in user-friendly ways. The latter (the greatest happiness of the greatest number?) would be more easily achieved if people who used a service were asked by those who provided it if it led to good or bad decisions – and how they distinguish one from the other.
There is a lot of talk these days about ‘client-centred legal services’. These two studies put some flesh on the bones of how you make services truly client-centred. They should give regulators and service providers much food for thought and action.