With so many people suffering from mental health diseases, the legal sector needs to be ready to do everything it can to support them when they most need help says Qamar Anwar
The Legal Services Board (LSB) recently published research and guidance on the experiences that vulnerable consumers have when seeking legal help.
The research by the LSB showed that most mentally ill clients said they had received an “appropriate service”, while the majority of dementia sufferers said their experience of seeing a solicitor had been “extremely positive”. This was a fantastically positive response for an industry that can often be viewed as stuffy or inaccessible, and shows that there are large numbers of legal advisers providing an excellent service.
However, it also found that a small group of mentally ill clients were dissatisfied, while those with dementia “were not taking full advantage” of the range of legal services providers available.
The LSB’s research has been published at the same time as a study in the British Medical Journal by University College London and the University of Liverpool. The study suggests that more than 1.2 million people in England and Wales will be living with dementia by 2040. But this isn’t just a problem for the future – there are close to 850,000 people currently living with dementia in the UK, and the likelihood of developing dementia rises with age; one in three people over 65 will develop it, and over 40,000 under 65 are currently affected by the disease.
Couple these statistics with the numbers of people who currently suffer mental health issues and the picture becomes even clearer – one in four people are likely to experience a mental health problem during their lifetime, with 75% of people receiving no help from the NHS. These two groups alone are a significant portion of the population who will need to access legal advice, but who, due to their medical conditions, are extremely vulnerable.
I feel passionately that access to legal services shouldn’t be predicated by wealth or circumstance. Access to sound legal advice and justice should be available for all, especially in times of need. So, what can the legal sector do to ensure that it continues to adapt and provide for those most vulnerable?
As ever, “jargon-free” advice and cost transparency will be key. As an industry, the legal sector must be aware of making itself as accessible as possible and not alienating those in need with technical, legal-heavy terms. Fears around costs can play heavily on the minds of those who don’t have plentiful funds, and as we are all well aware, it can put people off seeking legal advice entirely.
The LSB research highlighted that those who suffered mental health problems, or forms of dementia, had valued free initial services from third sector and regulated providers the most. Reasons for this centred around affordability, the ability to get initial advice on what their options may be, and having had a poor past experience of legal advice.
While not all those who are vulnerable have identical needs, there are certain legal services which they are more likely to need to access than others, such as wills, power of attorney, property issues and advice around welfare and benefits.
Providers in these areas need to look at this and understand how they can further adapt to support these customers and, in many cases, their families and carers. Services should be tailored to each individual with an understanding that these customers are likely to need extra time to express themselves. They should also be communicated in plain English, with an awareness that customers may need increased reassurance. All of this would be a step in the right direction.
Continuity in case handlers is important in providing reassurance, and providing clear and detailed outlines of fees and costs from the outset. Offering home visits and clear records of meetings are vital for those who feel intimidated by the profession and have difficulty processing information quickly.
It’s extremely important that these customers feel listened to and understood and have services adapted to support them. As an industry, we’ve clearly made some real progress in this area, but that shouldn’t allow us to grow complacent in ensuring we are doing everything we can to support some of the most vulnerable in our society.
Qamar Anwar is the managing director of First4Lawyers