One of the Firm’s core values is to uphold responsible and fair business practices. Additionally, in relation to the provision of our Probate services, the regulatory objectives of the Legal Services Act 2007 (the Act) which govern probate services include supporting the Rule of Law, improving access to justice, and protecting and promoting the interests of consumers. In this regard, aside from our moral and ethical requirements under the Ethical Rules of ICAEW, we have a legal responsibility set out in the Act to always act in the best interests of our clients.
Consumers of our legal services, which in our case is our probate services, are often dealing with life changing events, but in addition to that they may also feel vulnerable because they have limited technical knowledge or because they fear the cost of seeking advice. For vulnerable people, the availability of good, understandable and accessible advice can make a big difference to them, and we have a responsibility under the Act to continually review and, where necessary, adjust our practices to ensure that vulnerable clients are able to use our legal services effectively.
There is a guide issued by the Legal Services Consumers Panel – “Recognising and responding to consumer vulnerability – a guide for legal services regulators” (the Guide) which refers to a number of “risk factors” which are defined as circumstances that could contribute towards making a consumer vulnerable. The presence of one or more of these could increase the likelihood of a consumer being at a disadvantage or of suffering loss or detriment during a transaction or communication with an organisation.
These risk factors are:
- Learning Disabilities
- Physical Disabilities
- English as a second language
- Lack of internet access
- Lone parent
- Loss of income
- Living alone
- Low income
- Low literacy
- Cultural barriers
- Mental health issues
- Health problems
- Being a carer
- Leaving care
- Relationship breakdown
- Release from prison
The Guide gives this list as factors to be considered when assessing vulnerability, but recognises that they will not be relevant all the time. For example, older people may typically be described as more likely to be at a disadvantage. However, in many cases this may not be true as a retired person may have more time to search for a good provider, and many older people can be well educated and savvy. A working age consumer on the other hand who is working full time may be vulnerable to a poor choice because they may be extremely time poor. We need to consider each consumer’s particular circumstnces in each case.
The guide points out that some consumers may worry how long things will take and that the cost of legal services could spiral out of control. As a result they may disengage from obtaining legal advice entirely and not access advice even when they need it.
We need to consider the following points when dealing with consumers to ensure “good practice”:
- Ensuring easy access to our offices for everyone. This would include for example considering the difficulty that deaf people may experience with entry telephones.
- Consider the communication needs of certain vulnerable groups who may need clearer advice.
- Be aware of the difficulty that people with learning disabilites have with everyday tasks such as completing forms and concentrating for long periods. We may need to allow more time for meetings with this group or arrange meetings in quieter areas.
- Be aware that short-term characteristics causing vulnerability, such as bereavement, may give consumers a sense of powerlessness, which they may need help overcomiomg to access legal services
To meet our obligations and achieve good practice we will need to ensure that all personnel:
- Are able to recognise the needs of vulnerable consumers
- Can recognise and respond when carers want to deal with matters in place of the vulnerable person
- Are aware of Data Protection requirements when dealing with individuals
- Ensure that websites and other communications are accesible to the vulnerable
- Make standard communications consumer appropriate
- Put feedback mechanisms in place to check whether the needs of vulnerable consumers are met Have a process for assessing how effectively the needs of vulnerable consumers are addressed when providing our legal service