Last week the SRA announced it would proceed with controversial proposals to require firms to publish pricing information on their websites. Michael Lonergan, policy adviser, outlines the changes announced.
The Competition and Markets Authority in 2016 recommended the SRA and other legal regulators to improve upfront information for clients in the legal services market. This would help clients to shop around, compare providers, and drive competition in the market.
Last year the SRA consulted on proposals to deliver on this, and the Law Society responded strongly against them. We commissioned consumer behaviour research to show, for example, that simply putting information on websites might do little to actually help consumers, and could be misleading. However, on 14 June the SRA announced that it had decided to proceed with most of its proposals.
The single biggest change is firms must publish costs information on their websites for clients in certain areas of law as set out below:
|Individual customers||Business customers|
|Residential conveyancing||Debt recovery up to £100,000|
|Employment tribunal claims for unfair or wrongful dismissal||Employment tribunal claims for unfair or wrongful dismissal|
|Immigration (excluding asylum)||Licensing applications for business premises|
|Probate (where property and assets are within the UK and uncontested)|
|Motoring offences (summary only and dealt with at a single hearing)|
The SRA released final drafts of its new SRA Transparency Rules , which we are going through in detail. These rules require costs information to include things such as:
All firms, regardless of client or area of law, will also need to provide information about their complaints procedure on their websites, including how to make a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman and to the SRA.
Firms will also need to display a new digital ‘regulated by the SRA’ badge on their websites. This badge will allow clients to validate if a firm is authentic. Clicking the badge will take a user to the SRA webpage spelling out the client protections clients get when using a regulated law firm.
These changes - particularly those on costs - will pose compliance challenges for firms, but note the following :
Firms must abide by the existing obligation to give clients the best possible information on costs. However, the SRA seems to indicate that it will take a relatively flexible approach on transparency.
The SRA will also create a new digital register of firms and individual solicitors. This is intended to help clients and other solicitors validate who they are dealing with. This will bring together information currently spread across different registers, and entries will include information on disciplinary or enforcement action, conditions on authorisation, areas of practice and date of authorisation.
In response to our concerns the SRA has decided not to publish complaints data on individual firms, as it originally proposed. It said that publishing complaints data without meaningful context could be of little use or misleading and could affect smaller firms’ reputations among clients. This is a welcome change.