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Publishing your prices - what did the SRA say?

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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.

How did we get here?

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.

Costs information on websites - from December 2018

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 customersBusiness customers
Residential conveyancingDebt recovery up to £100,000
Employment tribunal claims for unfair or wrongful dismissalEmployment 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:

  • The total cost, or if not practicable, the average or range of costs
  • The basis for charges - e.g. hourly rates or fixed fees
  • The experience and qualifications of those carrying out the work, and those supervising

How to complain

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.

New digital badge

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.

Compliance challenges - but keep these in mind …

These changes - particularly those on costs - will pose compliance challenges for firms, but note the following :

  • The SRA stated ‘our rules will not stipulate which type of pricing or charging model firms should use.’ The changes are focused on price transparency and not forcing adoption of specific charging models like fixed fees.
  • The SRA has stated that the rules are ’broad enough to provide firms with flexibility in how they publish their prices, whilst being clear enough to make sure consumers get a good upfront indication of the cost’ [emphasis added].
  • Also ‘our rules will allow firms who do not know the total cost of a service to provide the information they do know, for example the average or range of costs’.
  • The rules will ‘enable firms to provide prices based on a standard case and make it clear what additional services would incur additional fees’.

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.

Digital register - during 2019

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. 

No publishing of complaints data

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.

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