Furore over Which? survey

THE CONSUMERS' Association has threatened to sue the Law Society over its attempts to discredit a damning Which? survey into the quality and cost of legal advice.

But the association is already being sued for libel by Shoosmiths & Harrison over claims in the survey that the firm had failed to warn a researcher of the cost of an appointment.

The firm's action against the association has given credibility to a ferocious rearguard action by the Law Society against the survey's charges that solicitors are handing out shoddy and inappropriate advice.

The Law Society has accused the body of breaking market research ethical codes, getting its own legal advice wrong and shoddy methodology during the research.

Law Society president Martin Mears said the survey demonstrated “more about the failings of Which? than the faults of the solicitors tested”.

Consumers' Association senior lawyer Keith Richards said the allegations had prompted the body to consider taking the unusual step of issuing a writ for libel.

He urged the Law Society to stop “mud slinging” and co-operate with the group to improve the quality of work provided by solicitors' firms.

The group stands by the survey, which saw 80 firms contacted for advice on four imaginary consumer-related legal problems.

In one case, the group claims, just one solicitor out of 20 gave the best guidance on a legal problem.

A separate telephone poll of 400 firms found wide variations in prices charged by firms and the group said few practices gave an indication of the likely cost of an appointment.

But the association has made a highly embarrassing gaffe over the accusation it levelled at Shoosmiths.

Partner Jane Raca, who dealt with the researcher's enquiry, said she had given him all the advice he needed over the telephone for free. She added: “I told him how much it would cost to continue but he insisted on having a meeting with me.”

Partner Peter Ellis, who is handling the legal action against Which?, said the firm had received an apology about the mistake but was still considering whether to take action.

The Law Society said many other firms named in the survey also challenged the Which? account of what took place.

“The solicitors' most common criticism is that the Which? researchers did not give them the same information on the hypothetical cases that appears in the article,” said a spokesman.

But ex-Consumers' Association director of legal affairs David Tench, now with Lovell White Durrant, said he would be surprised if the survey was not of the “highest standard”.