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‘Unbundling’ family legal services 'can make them more accessible'

Research presents practitioners’, consumers’ and judges’ experiences of unbundling

The Legal Services Board and Legal Services Consumer Panel have welcomed moves by law firms to unbundle legal services to consumers.

Unbundling is where a package of legal services is separated into parts and the work shared between the consumer and lawyer. An example of unbundling is a consumer preparing the evidence and the court bundle themselves and then directly instructing the barrister who represents the consumer at the court hearing.

The Legal Services Board and Legal Services Consumer Panel commissioned Ipsos MORI to undertake qualitative research with consumers, lawyers and judges. The resulting research paints a picture of law firms beginning to respond to consumer demand and changes in their commercial environment by developing affordable alternatives to full-service representation.

Family, civil and immigration have been identified as areas of law where this type of service delivery is amongst the most common. Family and civil enable a focus on support for litigants in person in a courtroom setting, whilst immigration was selected due to the large element of form-filling which makes this area potentially suitable for unbundling.

The research concentrated on those areas of practice and comprised:

The researchers found that:

Legal Services Consumer Panel Chair, Elisabeth Davies, said:

"We've known that the unbundling of legal services has been going on for some time. This research supports the view that unbundling can be used to broaden access to justice, and it's reassuring to see this method of service provision working hand in hand with DIY law. It's a natural response to the cuts in legal aid funding and wider financial struggles, and is indicative of the profession adapting to meet the needs of today's consumers and helping to empower them.

"But what this report also says is that there is a group of consumers who can't use these services, and whose needs may not be being met. While legal service providers should not shy away from providing unbundled services where it is appropriate, it is crucial that the more vulnerable consumers, including those who lack the confidence or knowledge to unbundle, are taken into account in other ways. Unbundling is an important part of a wider solution."

Chairman of the Legal Services Board, Sir Michael Pitt, said:

"Unbundling is one example of new ways of obtaining legal services that are beginning to change the face of the legal services market. This research provides encouraging evidence that unbundling can save people money and empower them to take greater control over their legal affairs.

"Whilst those lawyers interviewed agreed that unbundling is here to stay and is potentially as profitable as other work, the research suggests these services are rarely actively marketed to clients.

"In the right circumstances unbundling benefits consumers and providers alike. I welcome the keen interest that the professional bodies have already shown in this emerging area.

"This research provides valuable insight into the benefits and risks of unbundling, but overall it should give providers confidence that, with appropriate safeguards, they can unbundle their services whilst meeting their professional obligations."

The report is here.