In light of recent fines by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, Andy Donovan looks at what firms should do to ensure website compliance with the requirements of the SRA Transparency Rules

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In November 2023, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) issued its first fixed fines against three law firms for allegedly failing to ensure that their websites complied with its Transparency Rules. Since then, the fines for perceived shortcomings in law firm websites have come thick and fast.

The requirements

Most law firms are now familiar with the SRA’s website requirements but, to jog memories, all websites must include:

  1. A clickable SRA badge in a prominent place (which is intended to prove it is a genuine law firm’s website).
  2. The law firm’s SRA number.
  3. Details of how to make a complaint about the firm or its lawyers.
  4. Transparent and detailed information about price, if the firm publicises on its website any of the following practice areas:
    • conveyancing (residential)
    • probate (uncontested)
    • motoring offences (summary offences)
    • immigration (excluding asylum)
    • employment tribunals (unfair / wrongful dismissal)
    • debt recovery (up to £100,000)
    • licensing applications (business premises).

So what has changed? What’s different is how the SRA regards the seriousness of the action where they see a problem. The SRA has added alleged website deficiencies to a new list of breaches, which allow it to truncate its usual investigation processes and move straight to a disciplinary fine, fixed at £750 plus costs. The compliance officer for legal practice (COLP) is given seven days’ written notice to remedy the problems on the website. After that, the website is checked again, and if the problems identified persist, the fine will be issued.

In our experience, for firms who have made a genuine effort to comply, it is not always clear what the SRA’s concerns relate to. The reports outlining the shortcomings identified by the SRA typically make generic statements such as ‘no cost information’, when in fact that information is available on the website. This can be very confusing for firms when what the SRA really means is that it does not think that the costs information ticks all the necessary boxes.

To help other firms identify such issues, here are the most common misunderstandings and pitfalls we have seen.

1   Never say ‘contact us for a quote’

Firms should ensure that their pricing information is comprehensive. The words ‘contact us’ are a real trigger for the SRA. This is understandable if it is the only pricing information published, but we have seen firms picked up for this approach when it has been used to price the most unusual or complex cases in an otherwise transparent schedule. For example, if clearly priced fixed fees are offered for most work but not for matters relating to a multi-million-pound property, the regulator has deemed this non-compliant. Therefore, it would be prudent to double check your website to ensure that it covers the full spectrum of costs, even if elements at the higher end of a pricing schedule are very unlikely to be needed in practice.

Whether you are required to publish your prices or not, all law firms must publish details about how to complain to both the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) and to the SRA. Although the rules do not specify a particular page that law firms should link to, in practice the SRA appears to raise concerns if firms only link to its homepage. The SRA wants law firms to link specifically to the ‘report a solicitor’ page.

3   Ensure the LeO information is up to date

There have been two recent changes to the LeO’s information which it would be prudent to ensure is properly reflected on your website:

  • In April 2023, the time limits for making a complaint about a law firm reduced significantly – to within one year of the date of the act or omission in question or within one year of the complainant realising that there was a concern. Complaints must still be raised with the LeO within six months of the law firm’s final written response to the complaint – this has not changed.
  • In January 2024, the LeO changed its PO Box address to: PO Box 6167, Slough, SL1 0EH.

It is likely that the SRA will shortly begin challenging firms whose complaints information is out of date on either of these points.

4   Watch out for changes to practice areas

Take care as you expand your business and practice areas to check that you do not need to publish additional information relating to pricing on the website. We have come across one or two firms who have added a small reference to an expanding practice area on their website only to be challenged by the regulator for not publishing the necessary pricing information. Ensure your compliance team reviews and approves changes to the website, especially when revamping the services section.

5   Correctly place pricing information

Firms need to ensure that their pricing information, where relevant, is in a prominent place on the website. Firms should avoid simply linking to the costs information in the footer. Instead, consider adding a main menu tab purely for pricing, or link to this page directly from those pages that describe the relevant legal services. In addition, another pet hate of the SRA seems to be when firms use the term ‘price transparency’ for their costs page heading. Keep it clear and simple for clients by using ‘Our costs’ or ‘Our fees’.

6   Add team bios / qualifications

We often see the SRA picking up firms for not specifying the experience and qualifications of the staff who will be conducting work for the client. I suspect that this is in part because the SRA’s pricing templates don’t have a section for team experience and qualifications, so take particular care here if you have relied on SRA templates. It is of course difficult to know who will deal with a client’s matter when that potential client is simply browsing the firm’s website. In practice, you will need to add the experience and qualifications of all fee-earning staff to a ‘people’ or ‘about us’ section, ideally linking this to your costs page. I would recommend identifying fee earners who supervise work, too, as part of the relevant team member description.

7   Include disbursement details

Even if you have crafted beautiful prose and tables that accurately and clearly map your hourly rates, fixed fees and likely overall costs estimates, don’t forget one key detail – disbursements. Disbursements can be very hard to estimate. You are expected to provide an average or range if necessary. Firms just need to do their best to be frank about possible disbursements and their cost. Don’t omit items due to uncertainty; if costs are likely, share the best estimates you can. If no disbursements are likely, explicitly state so.

8   State exact figures for VAT

This feels like slightly old news but firms are still getting criticised by the SRA for not presenting VAT in the preferred way. Rule 1.5(e) of the SRA Transparency Rules requires firms who must publish their prices not only to state whether VAT applies but also to include the amount of VAT attracted. In practice, this means that if a firm’s website states that its fixed fee would be ‘£5,000 plus VAT’ this alone would not be compliant. The firm would need to state either ‘£5,000 plus VAT (at 20%)’ or break down the figures for price and VAT separately.

I suspect that the SRA prefers you to break down the figures into specific financial sums, but it does seem to accept that stating the percentage would be compliant, too. When publishing prices for consumer-facing work, it would certainly seem to be clearer to simply publish the price inclusive of VAT. Also, don’t forget that you need to be clear on whether VAT needs to be added to disbursements as well as fees.

9   Describe the services included

One of the more challenging elements to get right if you are not using a template is the description of the service you will offer. It is a relatively unusual regulatory requirement. The intention is that, when shopping around, clients can compare like for like. This makes sense but, when it comes to legal matters, describing the likely steps involved in each matter can end up being longwinded and result in an unwieldy costs information page. There is little choice, however, and the best firms can do is seek to mitigate these issues with a smart layout on their website. Expanding menus that contain more of the detail could legitimately be used to make the information more accessible and user-friendly.

10   Include timescales

In addition to describing the steps included in a legal matter, firms that must publish their pricing information must also incorporate the relevant timescales. Strictly speaking, the timescales provided should be for each stage of the matter. We haven’t yet seen the SRA taking an overly strict approach to requiring a breakdown of the timeframes for each stage if overall matter timescales have been provided, but it seems prudent to provide a timescale for each key stage. In those practice areas where there is realistically only one key stage, it may be prudent to make this clear in the time estimate.

11   Disclose price exclusions

The SRA also requires law firms to publish details “of any services that might reasonably be expected to be included in the price displayed but are not”. This does raise a peculiar challenge for law firms that include all such services within their price. How to prove the negative? How to demonstrate to the regulator when they inevitably land on your website, checklist in hand, that nothing is missing? When describing what is included in the price, something along the following lines can be useful: ‘It would not normally be necessary to undertake other work or incur other costs other than those described above.’

Random checks

The SRA is continuously conducting random checks on law firm websites. If you spot a problem, be sure to take corrective action promptly. Some smaller firms are taking the nuclear option of switching off their website while they get things in order. Hopefully this will not be necessary.

The SRA does offer some free templates. Make use of these and the top tips above and you shouldn’t go far wrong. Most importantly, if the SRA gives you seven days to get compliant, do all that you can to remedy perceived problems. If you believe that you are compliant, don’t be afraid to ask the SRA for more specific information as to what the concern is. The issues are not always easy to spot. Whatever you do, seize the opportunity to put things right before one of the new and all too common public sanctions is imposed on you.