Legal Aid anniversary – how can behavioural science help legal consumers make better decisions?

Published: April 1, 2016

“We explore a series of tools designed to help people overcome common biases and ultimately make better decisions.”

The start of April marks three years since cuts to Legal Aid reshaped the UK legal landscape. It is not just the legal industry which has grappled with the fallout from the cuts; the impact on consumers of legal services has been equally significant.

Only this week, Citizens Advice published a new report exploring the particular strain Legal Aid cuts have placed on people going through divorce proceedings. There has been a 30% rise in cases where neither party had any legal support, instead defending themselves because lawyers were either unaffordable or unavailable. Nine out of ten people who had no legal support reported damage to their mental or physical health.

For the vast majority of people, who don’t have the benefit of years of training, law can be complex and daunting subject. From a behavioural perspective, this raises a critical question.

If more and more people untrained in law are going through legal cases with no representation, how can we help these consumers avoid common mental pitfalls and make better decisions?

In two reports we produced for the Legal Services Board and a recent academic paper, both alongside John Maule, Emeritus Professor for Human Decision Making at Leeds University Business School, we explore a series of tools designed to help people do exactly that – overcome common biases and ultimately make better decisions.

Looking at the latest developments in the legal, financial and health sector, we consider two approaches in particular: ‘Just in Time’ and ‘Just in Case’ interventions.

As the phrase suggests, ‘Just in Time’ interventions focus on providing guidance and aid to an individual at a given moment. In a legal context, an example of this might be a decision tree to help people consider whether or not to pursue legal action if they find themselves in a situation where it is a possibility.

‘Just in Case’ interventions are broader initiatives to boost people’s levels of legal education and awareness. This is so that people may be better equipped if and when a situation arises where legal help may be necessary. As Legal Aid cuts continue to bite, we expect these sorts of initiatives to grow in number.

By looking at both interventions through a behavioural lens, we argue that both can be applied to legal situations to ensure consumers are not unduly swayed by the mental shortcuts we are all prone to taking. These shortcuts can cause decisions which ultimately do not always produce the best outcomes.

To read the full paper on the Frontiers online journal, click here.

The Legal Aid anniversary is a timely reminder of work Linstock did for the Legal Services Board when the cuts came into effect. Our first report explored what legal services can learn from behavioural economics, with a second paper looking in particular at helping legal services consumers make better decisions. To read that report, click here.

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