Does quality come at a price?
On first reading you might say yes, absolutely. The more you’ve spent on something, the more you value it and the more you therefore expect it to be of a good quality. Behavioural economics says a lot about the ‘irrational value assessment’ consumers make – we inherently expect cheaper things to be inferior and more expensive things to be superior. On this basis, if it’s free, then surely you’re more inclined to just take what you get, and if what you get isn’t as good as what others get when they pay, then that’s just how it works.
If you’re a lawyer and you’re reading this then you would immediately disagree when thinking about pro bono legal work. Rightly so. The Pro Bono Protocol states that legal work is pro bono only if it is free to the client, without payment to the lawyer or law firm (regardless of the outcome) and provided voluntarily either by the lawyer or his or her firm. Alongside this it makes clear that once a lawyer has agreed to undertake a piece of pro bono legal work they must give that work the same priority, attention and care as would apply to paid work.
So in the case of pro bono legal support, the fact that it’s free should have no bearing whatsoever on the quality of advice you receive.
And when you look outside legal services, the fact that free services should be of a high quality is apparent wherever you look. Think about the NHS and healthcare, you don’t pay a fee but your expectations and need of good quality services couldn’t be greater. You might push back on this and say that healthcare is free at the point of delivery but you have paid for the services, just indirectly. So what about an example from the charity sector. You phone Macmillan’s free helpline to get some advice and information – you rightly expect to receive good quality and accurate information. You’re treated by St John’s Ambulance volunteers at a public event – you expect those volunteers to be trained to a high and consistent standard.
When it comes to quality, whether or not you pay a fee for a service should not be relevant. Quality matters.
We need to keep thinking about this as we all consider the role of the unregulated sector in the delivery of legal services in the future. It’s a red herring to focus on whether providers charge a fee or not. This is not an indicator of quality, which is the measure that deserves attention. The focus should be on the quality of services they provide, and whether or not they meet or could meet the needs of consumers. And if they don’t, or can’t? Then there’s work to be done, but the fee isn’t the issue.