I happened upon an interesting discussion on Radio 5 Live the other day about the importance of checking the credentials of legal services you seek out online. The potential for bogus law practitioners making money out of the internet is the same as in any other sector: the unqualified builder who makes a mess of your house, the untrained accountant who messes up your tax return, and the like.
The internet is a wonderful thing because of the universal (almost) free access that anyone can enjoy but also because of that, it is open to abuse. The virtual business world is less formally regulated than the real business world. This means the unsuspecting customer can be caught out by unscrupulous charlatans, those with just enough knowledge to sound convincing but in actual fact likely to do a lot of damage or simply those who carefully word their website to make them appear something they are not.
There are checks potential clients can do to make sure they get the legal professionalism they think they are paying for but the simple rule of thumb is this: you can never be too careful.
Now, we certainly don’t want to give the impression that every legal practitioner on the internet has something to hide. That is not the case and the vast majority will be completely legitimate. It pays though to look carefully at the detail of the services offered. In the family law arena, some services offered may look like legal services but, in actual fact, are not. You can buy DIY divorce packs, for instance. This is a legitimate business but is unlikely to provide legal advice and the price tag reflects this. It will simply be a pack of forms (often freely available any way from Government websites) and instructions.
When it comes to sourcing legal information and advice online, there are some key criteria people can look at to assess whether there is genuine legal advice being offered:
• Is the firm regulated? This can be checked via the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Law Society. Look at both, as lists are rarely foolproof, as the Radio 5 programme pointed out.
• Are they qualified lawyers? This may be a designation as a solicitor, barrister or legal executive. Again, they should be listed by the Law Society or the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives . If in doubt, ask when the lawyer qualified and where they trained, and check into it that way.
• Be wary of ‘legal advisors’. The reality is that anyone can call themself this and yet they have no legal training. They do not claim to be legally trained. It goes back to looking at the detail of what is being said on the website.
• Can you speak to a real person? Some internet businesses will only correspond via email. This should set alarm bells going if they are claiming to offer legal services. At Woolley & Co, we offer a free initial telephone appointment with everyone – and can meet if they need that kind of reassurance.
There are unscrupulous people in all walks of life. There are also the profiteers looking to make money from the carefully worded advert or website blurb. Being aware that these people are operating in the family law sector is important. You need to make the checks to protect yourself and the legitimate, professional businesses out there should be only too happy to answer any questions you have to help you make up your mind.
Sue Harwood CILEX
Family Lawyer Cornwall