Virtual benefits – the pros and cons of online self help tools

Elisabeth DaviesOnline advice is one of those areas where you can almost guarantee everyone has a theory about what consumers want and how consumers use it.  So it was really interesting to see a blog last week in Legal Voice by James Kenrick well and truly exposing the myth of the tech savvy generation.

It is often assumed that the internet provides great benefits universally and that more advice in general should be delivered online where it can be provided free or low cost, and where many people will be able to access it.  Most recognise that there are groups who do not have internet access, but this usually focuses on those who may not have good/easy/cheap connections (usually because of geography) or those who might have difficulty getting online.  Inevitably there are assumptions made about age so it was interesting to see an article focused on challenging the belief that generally it is young people who greatly benefit from online advice provision, without any of the associated risks or problems with access.

The challenges of online advice provision are real. The LSRC project mentioned in the Legal Voice article tracked the way young people used search engines and found a lack of discrimination between trustworthy and non-trustworthy sites, and that although internet searches tended to increase knowledge of rights, this did not always translate into appropriate action or indeed increased confidence.  Legal commentator Roger Smith has researched the enormous amount of available information and the fact that currently a lot of information provided online is not interactive or dynamic but simply a collection of ‘digitised leaflets’ which time-poor consumers have to wade through.  It is also crucial that people are able to recognise when they are out of their depth and need expert help rather than an online tool – well functioning self help tools should help consumers to recognise this.

But whilst the challenges are all too clear, so are the potential benefits and opportunities.  Consumers could have access to a wider choice of providers and types of tool, easier ways to search for a provider and standardisation of quality.  There’s also the chance to access more transparent information about how the process will work alongside potentially quicker resolution of the legal issue, more control over the process, and in some cases being able to determine the amount of input a lawyer has and at what stage – for example when documents or forms are checked by a lawyer as part of an online package.  And let’s not forget greater convenience – for time-poor consumers being able to log on and deal with matters in the evenings or at weekends could be invaluable.

The Legal Voice article and the wider context of online information is of particular interest because the Legal Services Consumer Panel and the Legal Services Board are setting up a joint project on online self help tools. Our starting point is that more and more people are going online to look for ways to solve their legal problems.  Our aim is to find out more about the user experience of online tools, and we’re planning to use online divorce as a case study. We want to find out whether consumers believe these tools work well, whether they deliver value for money, what benefits and risks might be involved, and how any risks could best be managed.

In this project we’ll be looking at paid for online tools rather than free advice.  We’re already scoping out what we want to cover and we’ll be putting out a call for tender with our LSB colleagues shortly.

I predict that, as with the Panel’s work on comparison websites, our project on online tools will expose a real divergence of opinion in the sector.  But as with comparison websites, online tools are now here to stay.  They won’t go away, they are a feature of the legal services market, and we therefore need to ensure they’re delivering the best possible legal advice and information for consumers.