University of Denver

Demand and Supply: Perspectives on Access and Quality of Family Law Services

Associate Professor and Director, Family and Child Legal Advocacy Clinic, University of Wyoming College of Law

A new report conducted by Ecorys UK, Experiences of consumers who may be vulnerable in family law, explores the impacts of personal and situational vulnerabilities for people seeking legal assistance with family law matters. Specifically, the study explored access, cost, and quality of legal representation in the modern-day legal market—a market with increasingly more options for people contemplating or experiencing involvement in the legal system. In order to adequately assess the issues from a consumer’s perspective, the study also sought insight into the perspectives of a sample of solicitors (lawyers) and legal firms in the United Kingdom providing the services.

People who need access to family law services often have personal characteristics that make them more vulnerable when seeking those services, including learning disabilities, mental health issues, and low income. Legal firms reported homelessness, loss of income, and threat of harm as common vulnerabilities.  The most frequent adjustments made by solicitors to accommodate consumers were additional explanations to help people understand the complex legal process and using a variety of means to communicate.

Another issue addressed by the study was the cost of legal services. When dealing with any type of vulnerability, costs of legal services will likely increase. While many of the consumers reported factors such as knowledge and experience were more important reasons for choosing a solicitor than cost or location, most could not afford the services without tapping into other financial sources like credit cards or personal loans. Solicitors and legal firms also reported that they have had to find ways to make their services more affordable, perhaps because of legal reforms and innovations that allow people to represent themselves in legal matters.

This may explain why a high percentage (85 percent) of surveyed law firms offer limited scope or unbundled legal services and 88 percent offer fixed-fee services, even though the complexity and unpredictability of family law cases can make flat fee arrangements challenging. The most popular method used to support costs is a payment plan, though methods varied firm to firm. While many of the legal service providers reported an understanding of their responsibility to ensure clients were aware of costs, most consumers in the survey did not find the costs immediately transparent and nearly half felt the costs were higher than originally anticipated without adequate explanation as to why.

More than half of the respondent consumers reported their solicitors’ overall quality as either good or excellent, and only about 10 percent rated the service as “very poor.” Still, most consumers surveyed were unlikely to complain for various reasons, including concerns it would affect the outcome of their case.  

A number of issues were identified from the research, including:

  1. The need to provide better information to consumers on how to navigate the legal system;
  2. Necessity to promote improved transparency for quality and costs of services; and
  3. Identifying other ways that consumer vulnerabilities impact their experiences with family law services.

Perhaps family law attorneys in the United States can learn ways to improve the accessibility, cost, and quality of their practices from this research abroad.