There is no better graphic representation of the history of legal services in England and Wales than the barrister’s wig. The fact that in order to be heard in a senior court a person must first place a 16th century horse hair wig on their head demonstrates the historic exclusivity that accompanied legal services provision.
For much of the last few hundred years the rules regarding who can deliver legal advice have been fixed. In the event of a legal problem arising, one would have to consult an appropriately qualified solicitor who would then recruit a specialist barrister should representation be required in court. As a result, other ways of resolving issues were largely unavailable to the average person.
This strict and particular model remained unchallenged for centuries. In the last decade, however, steps have been taken to open up the legal services market.
Firstly, the traditional distinction between barristers and solicitors has been eroded with the creation of ‘solicitor-advocates’ able to act in the senior courts. This was complemented by the introduction of changes which have allowed barristers to advise clients directly without the need for a solicitor. These are major reforms which have broken down divisions which have existed for centuries.
Secondly, the introduction of Alternative Dispute Resolution has changed the way in which legal disputes are resolved. In the past, it was only truly possible to resolve issues by going to court with a lawyer. Now the position is much more complex. In many areas, such as family law, it is a requirement for litigants to attempt mediation before they can enter a courtroom. These changes have significantly reduced the need for lawyers to become involved in the process. Other parties, such as mediators, arbitrators, and the voluntary sector have become more important in helping people to resolve disputes.
Most importantly, however, the Legal Services Act, passed in 2007, has broken down the barriers preventing new models of delivering legal services. Following this legislation, it is now possible for legal services to be provided by ‘Alternative Business Structures’. This has enabled new entrants to the market to compete with established solicitors and barristers. Advantages of these reforms include greater choice, specialisation, and clarity. It is now open to a wider number of bodies, such as supermarkets, co-operatives and online companies, to offer and promote legal services to the market.
Birth of Online Document Retailers
One development that has arisen as a result of the changing market is the advent of online legal document retailers. These are websites that offer standard legal documents to consumers in exchange for a fixed price. Whereas before customers may have had to visit an expensive solicitor to obtain a draft contract or terms and conditions, these are now available at the click of a mouse via the internet.
Online legal document retailers offer significant benefits to service users. The first and most obvious is cost. Customers can now significantly reduce their expenses by making use of new websites. Other bonuses include simplicity, by enabling customers to obtain documents written in plain English, and efficiency, by facilitating quicker and faster business deals. It is now possible to obtain a vast range of legal templates online such as:
- Contracts for the Sale of Goods
- Agreements governing share ownership
- Tenancy agreements
- Contracts of employment
- Confidentiality and non-disclosure agreements
- Pre-nuptial agreements in marriage cases
- Agreements concerning power of attorney
- Intellectual property agreements
Critics of the reforms to legal services have claimed that the changes will lead to ‘Tesco law’. It is suggested that opening up the market will create a new sector of unqualified, unreliable players, which will inevitably be to the detriment of consumer welfare.
Much of this criticism comes from existing legal practitioners. Legal practitioners have to train for a number of years and pass several exams and apprenticeship tests in order to become qualified. There is no such guarantee with the authors of online legal documents, for example. Online documents can be written by anyone, anywhere. As a result, there is a degree of risk that accompanies online retailers, which is also found with other new legal service providers, such as supermarkets and co-operatives.
While there may be issues with quality assurance amongst some new entrants, the net effect of greater competition and choice will in all probability be an increase in standards. The threat presented by Alternative Business Structures innovations will force established providers to offer greater value to consumers. Better ‘niche’ area service will result as providers compete to deliver a wider range of specialist products. These consequences can only be to the benefit of the consumer’s needs and requirements.
Unlike the legal professions, online document retailers require no prior consultation before documents can be obtained. There is no delay as a result of excessive administration or compliance issues. A small business owner can now log on to the internet and select a contract if they intend to employ a new member of staff without having to check the process with a solicitor. The advantages for the whole economy in terms of productivity and growth of this efficiency are plain to see. Furthermore, being able to obtain accurate documents online will encourage businesses and individuals to avoid using lawyers wherever they can. One hopeful consequence of this is that economic actors may become more legally self-reliant, sidestepping the trauma and expense of going through the official litigation process with solicitors and barristers.
Whenever wholesale reform is introduced, there will be those who resist it. This is no different with changes to legal services, which have been unpopular with a section of the established professional market.
It seems, however, that the title ‘Tesco law’ is both misleading and inaccurate. Alternative Business Structures, particularly online legal document retailers, can offer such choice and variety that standards and quality will surely improve in the long-run. Rather than harming consumer welfare, therefore, there is every chance that ‘Tesco law’ and other developments will create substantial gains for the legal services market heading into the future.