Fixed fees and the future of family law

15 Nov 2016

by Sarah Greene, TLT

A new report seeks to empower consumers by forcing through fixed fees. But is it only part of a far wider reorganisation of law that is coming round the corner?

The Legal Services Consumer Panel has suggested that family law specialists should operate on a fixed-fee basis and has called for regulators to enforce this. Responding to a report by the Competition and Market Authority into legal services, the panel is concerned that the ability of the consumer to drive competition within the family law arena is hampered by the lack of information available to enable them to shop around and decide on the most appropriate provider for their needs.

Family clients are often at their most vulnerable when seeking legal advice and the panel feels that fixed fees and transparency are the solution. According to the panel, only 17% of legal services providers display their fees on their website. The panel’s view is that, at the very least, prices for family law services should be displayed on practitioner’s websites, or available upon request. Price is becoming increasingly important to those in need of family law advice, and as the LSC purse-strings continue to tighten, the market of potential consumers continues to expand and the need to be competitive in a relatively saturated market only increases.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it appears that consumers are reluctant to shop around for family representation.

Contacting a lawyer you have never met before and admitting that your marriage is over, or that you are a victim of domestic abuse, or that arrangements for your children have broken down is a daunting prospect and emotionally draining. It is an experience that many people will be reluctant to repeat, simply to ensure that they get the best price for a service.

Would transparency of fees help address this or is there a risk that a client will be driven by keeping costs down and go with the cheapest, and not necessarily most suitable, option for their case?

Where fixed fees cannot be offered, the panel’s view is that providers should give a range of prices, using previous experience and expertise to cost appropriately. The panel claim that this transparency could reduce the number of cases that are referred to the Legal Ombudsman.

There are a number of firms already advertising fixed-fee services through their websites, and many that will offer some fixed-fee services upon enquiry. However, there are few, if any, firms who offer a complete service from start to finish on a fixed-fee basis and, in reality, given the nature of family law, it would probably be impractical to do so.

However, the traditional notion of instructing a solicitor to represent you from the start of a process to the end is fast becoming a thing of the past. As individuals seek greater control over their legal costs, or feel empowered to handle certain areas of their case, many want the choice of dipping in and out of legal representation and the certainty of the costs they will incur when they choose to do so.

Looking to the future

The pace of change in family law is ever-increasing. With the mooted introduction of the online court and no-fault divorce around the corner, times are changing and family lawyers need to keep up and stay competitive. If a judge can make a decision by email over their morning coffee, clients will expect a similar service from their lawyer.

The internet is a key consumer tool. Social media dominates 21st-century life and features increasingly in family law as a contributor to relationship breakdown. Many clients now prefer to operate over email only, and an increasing number of law firms are operating on an electronic-only basis.

Clients expect an instantaneous turnaround. Faxes and letters are becoming a thing of the past. The way we run our lives has changed. It is not practical for some clients to come into the office, and individuals do not want their choice of lawyer to be limited by geographical location.

As client demands change, the business of operating a law firm also needs to change. Clients expect to receive a professional and commercial service. They don’t want to know the ins and outs of the Matrimonial Causes Act 1973 or the merits or otherwise of a point of law reform. They want the answer and they want it now, without needing or wanting to know how you got there.

Family law needs to respond to this changing landscape, be it offering increasing fixed fee options or bespoke unbundled services, where demand requires and it is appropriate to do so.

YRes points of note

The YRes generation has the opportunity to shape the future of how we as a profession practice, and to ensure that our firms are at the forefront of delivering a professional service that meets the needs of its consumers.

How can you improve your firm’s offerings in a changing landscape? Are your services and costs transparent? What business opportunities can you identify that your firm could benefit from and how can you implement them? Do you know how to overcome the risks and concerns associated with unbundling to be able to provide a profitable yet valuable service?

The world is becoming increasingly fast-paced and technology-driven, and the world of family law needs to follow suit.

The Legal Services Consumer Panel letter can be read on its website. The final CMA report is due to be published in January 2016.

Sarah sits on the Resolution National Committee and is the National YRes Chair.