Transparency – could we do better?

SRA Transparency Rules

In the same week that the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) hails the positive effect for consumers from the introduction of the Transparency Rules, the Law Society’s Gazette has carried an article stating that only 42% of all solicitors firms are complying with those rules.  The source for both is the same SRA sponsored report from Economic Insight.

The news release from the SRA states that a new report shows that the Transparency Rules, which require all SRA-regulated law firms to publish certain information on price, how services will be delivered and their complaints procedures on their website, or offline if they do not have a web presence, are having a positive effect.  The report entitled “Year Three Evaluation of the SRA Transparency Rules“, and which looked at the three years since the reforms were introduced in November 2019, states that “independent research suggest that the transparency rules are beginning to deliver tangible results. Not only are firms making more information publicly available, but consumers are increasingly looking for and using this information when they have a legal need”.  It goes on to say that this “should in turn not only help consumers make more informed decisions, but also improve access to justice, especially among those who previously did not have ready access to such information”.

The key findings from the review included:

  • More than half (50% of individuals and 60% of SMEs) who had recently engaged with a legal services provider reported comparing price and service information before selecting an individual provider.
  • 55% of individuals and 61% of SMEs who compared costs and services of different legal services providers found it easy to do so using information available online, while 21% of individuals found it difficult to compare this information.
  • More than half (55%) of individuals who visited a firm’s website prior to instruction recalled seeing the SRA clickable logo (up from 15% in the one-year review) – with most stating it helped them understand the protection they would receive.

However, as the Gazette points out, the review also shows that in terms of implementation of the Transparency Rules, only 42% of firms state they fully comply with the Rule, 74% that they display their complaints policy and procedure, and how and when to complain to the Legal Ombudsman and the SRA (as required by Rule 2) and 88% that they display the clickable logo.  The figures in relation to price transparency are a little more complex with differing percentages displaying prices, key stages, time-scales and services included.  The figures range between 52% and 70%.

As anyone who has looked at a number of solicitors’ websites will realise, there is a substantial difference in the way that firms display information and the comprehensiveness of the information displayed. For example many websites pay mere lip service to setting out what is involved in a transaction whereas others provide comprehensive guides to the various stages and processes.   The report highlights the fact that many solicitors still find the rules to be confusing.  Around 15% of firms admitted to finding the rules unclear.  The report states:

“Suggestions from SRA-regulated firms who think that the Rules are not clear include: (i) providing more clarity on how costs information should be set out; (ii) providing more examples and templates on best-practice, as well as (iii) making the Rules simpler and applicable to all. Moreover, interviewed firms also suggested that more clarity on where certain bits of information should be laid out, such as the costs information, would be helpful for implementing the Rules”.

Our own experience is that one of the key areas where firms remain unclear is in relation to the use of price calculators on websites where clearer guidance needs to be provided as to what are and are not acceptable questions and as top how the figures that result should be delivered to the enquirer.

Finally, it should be borne in mind that the figures contained within the report are based on firms’ own assessments of their compliance.  Ouyr experience, and that of the SRA, is that far fewer than 42% are fully compliant.  In their press release, the SRA state:

“Our own spot checks suggest that even among firms who declare they are complying, many are not meeting all the requirements of the rules. We are continuing work to check compliance levels, offering to support to firms where improvements need to be made, but taking action where they are wilfully failing to adhere”.

As many a school report has said – could do better.

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