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‘A la carte’ legal services – the future of legal work?

‘A la carte’ legal services, more commonly known as ‘unbundling’ is where legal work is shared between the lawyer and the client. In other words it is providing legal assistance and advice ‘behind the scenes’ to a litigant in person. It can encompass the preparation of pleadings, reviewing documents prepared by the client or simply representing the client at court.

With the current economic climate and the vast legal aid cuts, this is an option that will appeal to many clients not only limited to family matters. It has been established through research carried out on behalf of the Legal Services Board that the reduced legal costs and enhanced control over their own matter is one of the primary reasons clients opt for the unbundled service. For those that require assistance with preparing court documents or want legal advice as to possible outcomes, an unbundled service would be an ideal option. Offering such services to clients allows lawyers to assist those vulnerable clients in need of assistance who are no longer eligible for legal aid.

But is this really the ideal way forward? Providing such a service is an inevitable response to the legal aid cuts and allows lawyers to assist those who may not be able to pay for complete legal services. Whilst this option may be appealing to clients, lawyers should keep in mind the risks associated with the same and a full assessment should be carried out as to the appropriateness of the service for individual clients based on the complexity of the matter. In addition the extent of work to be carried out by the professional and the information they have at hand needs to be clearly set out at the start to ensure both parties are clear on their obligations. Offering an unbundled service brings with it risks of misunderstandings between the parties, complaints and/or negligence claims, lawyers may also find that they are working outside the scope of the limited retainer.

Nevertheless, providing an unbundled service is important in the ever changing legal market. Sir Michael Pitt, Chairman of the Legal Services Board has said, in relation to the above mentioned research, “This research provides valuable insight into the benefits and risks of unbundling, but overall it should give providers confidence that, with appropriate safeguards, they can unbundle their services whilst meeting their professional obligations.”

When providing an unbundled service, professionals should refer to the Law Society’s practice note on unbundling.