The legal market is shrinking. Who is to blame? The economy?
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The recently implemented Legal Services Act 2007 branded “Tesco law”, aimed at liberalising legal services has received a mixed response within the legal profession. While some applaud the move to “open the door to the new legal market”, conservative types within the legal profession oppose the changes in a bid to preserve this traditional vocation and prevent law from being turned into a “high street commodity”.
The main concern among critics is that the introduction of Alternative Business Structures (ABS) which allow non-lawyers to invest in law firms, will present significant problems, resulting in independent legal advice being put at risk as businesses focus on maximising their profit.
Resistance to the changes brought about by the Legal Services Act 2007, stems from the fact that a considerable number of people in the legal sector – High street firms in particular – are unwilling to innovate and position themselves strategically in the changing legal landscape.
This reluctance to innovate could drive some firms out of business as the availability of certain services such as conveyancing, probate become readily available in the new firms run by non-lawyers that will begin to mushroom as a result of the 2007 Act. There is no doubt that complex areas of law will continue to be handled by firms that have built a reputation in certain specialisms.
Legal practitioners in favour of the liberalisation of legal services, are of the view that people will be able to access legal services in new ways and the public will have a greater choice of legal service providers. There is a strong possibility that the implementation of this Act at a time when legal Aid spending is being cut could be a political ploy to appease the public.
It is often astounding to see how the importance of legal literacy and its benefit to grassroots is overlooked in society. A recent finding revealed that only half of the law schools in the United Kingdom have delivered some form of legal literacy in communities over the last ten years. As law centres in some parts of the country continue to close, the underprivileged will bear the brunt of this. The perception that legal knowledge is the preserve of the privileged few continues.
Most people will agree that a lack of legal awareness prevents people living on the fringes of society from gaining access to much needed legal advice and this can diminish their confidence when dealing with issues of a legal nature. According to Legal Action Group (LAG), research shows that over a third of people in the UK experience some sort of civil law problem over a three and a half year period and very few of those go on to seek legal help because of lack of awareness.
The implications for this trend are huge. Lack of knowledge particularly for disadvantaged people, can perpetuate social deprivation and exclusion which leads to vulnerable people being caught up in a vicious cycle.
There is a need to improve the quality and quantity of public legal education particularly at a time when cuts are being made to the legal aid budget. Basic legal education that informs people of their obligations and rights should be an integral part of legal services.
Inadequate legal literacy programs particularly in a developed country, goes against the idea of well informed participatory democracy. A lack of legal literacy programs can not promote community participation, empowerment and foster a human rights culture particularly for those at the grass roots.
As Italian Jurist Mauro Cappelletti once said “effective access to justice can be seen as the most basic requirement, the most basic human right of a system which purports to guarantee legal rights”.