Legal advice on Net could send SIF claims spiralling

THE Law Society is to host a seminar for solicitors hoping to sell legal services on the Internet, amid fears that claims on the Solicitors' Indemnity Fund (SIF) could escalate as a result of incorrect advice displayed on the Web.

The Law Society will hold the seminar – The Commoditisation and On-line Provision of Legal Services: Threats and Opportunities – on 1 December at its Chancery Lane headquarters. The meeting will examine the problems and opportunities brought by new methods of communication.

Independent IT consultant Neil Cameron, who will address the seminar, predicted a "mad scramble" among law firms hoping to provide legal services across the Internet.

Cameron warned that this could put pressure on SIF, since firms would not be able to control how many people saw incorrect advice placed on their web sites, and one mistake "could be seen 50 times before you blink".

Cameron said: "There is a professional indemnity issue here. You don't know how many people could be suing you, and it would be a prudent course of action on behalf of SIF to identify potential risks and give guidance on them."

Barry Jackson, head of business development at City firm Herbert Smith, said his firm wanted to set up an internet advice service, but was worried it would lead to claims against the firm.

Jackson said: "We're looking for an innovative way of doing this, but if we have to attach disclaimers to everything, then it defeats the purpose."

Legal IT expert Professor Richard Susskind, who predicted that lawyers would offer advice across the Internet in his book, The Future of Law, said the Law Society had a "key regulatory role" to play.

Susskind said the Law Society should set up "some form of certification so that the public would know they were dealing with a qualified lawyer".

Gerald Newman, the Law Society's deputy director of communications, said the society aimed to "raise awareness" among the legal profession about the benefits and pitfalls of the Internet.

Newman said about 400 of the 8,000 law firms in England and Wales had web sites and half of all firms had access to the Internet.

He added: "We are noticing a big increase in interest.

"If firms are a little bit creative they can punch well above their weight because clients can't tell what size they are."

Linklaters pioneered internet-based legal advice and information services when it launched a service called Blue Flag at in August 1996.

Paul Nelson, the Linklaters partner responsible for the Blue Flag service, said it was only available to clients and was no different to traditional methods of giving advice. He said Blue Flag operated as a "virtual lawyer" for investment banks.