Shoddy work and poor service are leaving hundreds of people in the UK out of pocket. But they can't call a solicitor - because it's the legal services industry itself that's in the dock.
Cowed by arcane language, high fees that are often imposed for obscure reasons, and poor complaints procedures, consumers have long struggled to get good value from legal advisers and solicitors.
In seeking redress for poor service, particularly, people are often frustrated. In recent research, the consumer body Which? cited a report from the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner, revealing that four in 10 complainants were "unsatisfied" with the outcome.
But this situation could be about to change.
An overhaul of the way in which legal firms treat consumers is set to lead to the introduction of new price comparisons for legal work, more competition and better service. Personal injury claims handlers could also be subject to greater regulation.
The consultation period has just ended on a government White Paper entitled The Future of Legal Services: Putting Consumers First, with consumer groups pressing strongly for reform. A draft Bill is expected to be drawn up by the end of March and could become law by the end of this year.
In what has been branded "Tesco law", a government-backed drive to shake up the legal services industry is under way. Proposals include letting solicitors go into business with estate agents, accountants and even supermarkets to give advice on property sales and wills. It is hoped that new investment in the industry will bring down the cost of legal work.
Slowly, the tide is turning in favour of consumers. Ten days ago, Bridget Prentice, the legal services minister in the Department for Constitutional Affairs, launched a website giving advice to the public on how to appoint a solicitor. Its "Seven Steps to a Better Deal" shows how to get the outcome you want when seeking legal advice - on setting up a trust or selling a house, say, or when a will is going through probate.
The website lists seven questions for clients to ask of their solicitors, including "What exactly will I be charged?", "What do I get for my money?" and "How often have you handled this kind of work?" They should also contact several legal firms to compare prices, the website stresses, since costs can vary wildly.
This last point is borne out by the experience of one Independent on Sunday reader. John Nicholas, a retired engineer, recently wrote to five different solicitors in the West Country to ask about the cost of drawing up a discretionary will trust - a legal arrangement designed to split ownership of the family home to help avoid inheritance tax. Quotes ranged from £250 including VAT to £1,000 plus VAT for the same instruction.
"I couldn't believe the difference in price," says Mr Nicholas. "I'm still unsure which firm to use. I'm now facing a telephone marathon to find out exactly what they offer, and I have no idea of an average price."
In fact, price guidelines are non-existent, so it's hard to know if you're being ripped off. The Law Society says there is no list of average prices for its members' work, and never has been. A spokesman points out that it has never received a request to provide one, and stresses the logistical difficulty of doing so.
The legal industry is self-regulating, which might explain this lack of consumer-friendly policies. But the White Paper proposes a new regulatory body as well as an independent complaints office.
Louise Restell of Which? says the Law Society has a poor record of dealing with complaints, compared with other industries. Which?'s own research in November showed that more than half of consumers found it "difficult" to make a complaint about a solicitor.
But according to the Law Society, things are improving. Last year, its complaints arm looked at a total of 4,968 referrals from law firms that had failed to resolve disputes - mainly concerning delays to work that led to financial loss. This figure was up more than 300 on the year before, while customer satisfaction with the outcome of the complaint was put at 60 per cent (up from 52 per cent).
And just four weeks ago, in a further move towards improving the standard of legal services offered to the public, a new consumer complaints board was set up. It is funded by the Law Society but has a majority of lay members. The society hopes this will go some way towards addressing the negative image of the industry suggested by Which?'s research.
As if to underline that perception, Ms Restell at Which? says: "At the moment, the view held by [many] is that complaining is a waste of time and money - that, as a lay person, you have no chance against the legal profession."
'Seven Steps to a Better Deal' can be found at www.consumer-direct.gov.ukReuse content