In 2012 the Solicitors Regulation Authority began authorising alternative business structures (ABS).  Previously ownership of legal service providers was only restricted to lawyers.  Courtesy of the ABS structure, provided a company is deemed “fit or proper” they may now provide legal services.

In early 2012 various businesses were approved to begin providing legal services.  The Co-operative was one of the first ABSs approved to provide legal services under the title “The Co-operative Legal Services”.  The view behind allowing the new bodies to provide legal services was that it would broaden the legal market, and give it a competitive edge.  Many solicitors were concerned about ABSs providing legal services given the complexity of this field of work, and the scheme has been subject to much debate and criticism.

Research carried out by a specialist independent research agency entitled “Public Opinion of Solicitors” Report (2014) showed some perhaps surprising results.

Would you consider a supermarket divorce?

The survey comprised a mix of people across different areas within England and Wales spread across different age groups all of whom have used a solicitor.  Most of those questioned have used a solicitor in the past two years.  Since the introduction of banks and supermarkets being able to provide legal services the consumers surveyed were asked whether they would use these ABSs.  The majority (71%) believed the supermarket entrants would not be able to provide as “tailored” a service as solicitors.  Over two thirds of the people surveyed felt that the quality of the legal service would not be as good.  Furthermore 62% of people recognised that there would be limitations to banks and supermarkets providing legal services and agreed they would not be prepared to use either for anything that involved more than extremely basic legal services.  People felt that for more complicated issues going to a traditional solicitors firm would be a far better use of their resources.  Fewer than half of the Respondents believed the increased presence of these ABSs would offer greater choice while only one in four of these people agreed that they would rather use a bank or supermarket in place of solicitor.

All the people who were surveyed were asked to rate seven main high street brands in terms of “confidence in their abilities to provide basic legal services” on a scale of zero to ten.  Zero being not very confident and ten being extremely confident as to their competence.  All the supermarkets scored below five showing that confidence in each was low.  The supermarket consumers felt would be most trustworthy to carry out legal services was Marks & Spencer with a score of 4.9 and the supermarket with the least consumer confidence in providing legal services was listed as Asda with a score of 3.8.

What this survey seems to show is that consumers are aware that when it comes to legal services not all providers of legal services are created equal.  Given the complex issues in divorce and family proceedings and the level of personal and emotional involvement a great majority of customers are likely to be extremely selective about who they pick to represent them in these proceedings.

And, finally, it is of interest that the Co-operative is now mired in controversy having run into serious financial problems, and the future of its legal services arm is in doubt.  The new entrants may be discovering that competently running a law firm is not just a walk in the park.

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