The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has announced that it will, over the next few months, again be rolling out a programme of checks on firms’ websites to make sure that they are complying with all aspects of the SRA’s Transparency Rules.
This is not the first time that the SRA has undertaken a sweep of websites to check for compliance. The difference this time appears to be that it will be checking all law firm sites, including those of firms who have previously filled in a self-declaration stating that they are fully compliant. On previous occasions just a number of firms were selected.
The move comes as no great surprise given the current push by the Legal Services Board (LSB) in its “Reshaping Legal Services” initiative (see reshapinglegalservices.org.uk/). The need to “enhance transparency by providers on price and quality” was first highlighted as part of Challenge 7 in the Reshaping Legal Services strategy report published by the LSB in March 2021. This stated that despite the transparency rule requirements, “a quarter of consumers still report difficulty in finding price information”. It went on to state that “the measures introduced by the regulators … are not yet delivering stronger price competition. Some providers publish wide ranges of likely prices, with extremes of low and high prices that give little indication of where the actual cost is likely to be. This does not meet the spirit of the rules or give helpful information to prospective customers.” It stated that transparency of quality had still not been addressed and that there needed to be an increase in the tools that consumers could use for carrying out comparisons.
There is a strong possibility, therefore, that this exercise could simply be the beginning of a move on the part of the SRA to require firms to take further steps to enable the public to be able to judge the likely service they will receive from their solicitor. This is likely to include monitoring and publishing more price related and “qualitative” information about firms. The LSB have already highlighted the need for client reviews as part of the “qualitative” process – something that featured in the SRA’s pilot programme earlier in the year. The LSB have highlighted as one of their outcomes, the need for consumers more easily to be able to “compare the cost and quality of different legal services providers and what services they deliver”.
That the SRA is taking this seriously is in no doubt. In July of this year it commissioned external research partners, Economic Insight to conduct an independent evaluation of its transparency rules and inviting firms to complete a short survey on their experience of the rules and what impact they thought they had had. The SRA has said that its research suggests that the majority of firms are adhering to the rules, and that some have already noticed the business benefits from transparency. However, it states, some firms are not adhering to the rules – hence the latest rolling programme of checks. As on previous occasions the SRA has said that where it finds non-compliance with the rules it will, in the first instance, engage with that firm and only take action where the firm persists in failing to comply.
The Transparency Rules require that if a firm has a website and offers services areas such as conveyancing, probate, immigration, employment tribunals or motoring offences, then the firm must publish certain information in relation to those service on its website. This includes details on the services offered, who delivers them and pricing. The Rules also require all regulated law firms, whatever services they offer, to publish details of their complaints procedure and a copy of the SRA clickable logo on their site.
There is, it is true, a degree of ambiguity in the Rules (www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/standards-regulations/transparency-rules/). For example, Rule 1 states that a firm that publishes as part of its usual business the availability of any of the services referred to in Rule 1.3 and 1.4 of the Transparency Rules “must, in relation to those services, publish on its website cost information in accordance with rule 1.5 and 1.6”. The word “publish” is not defined, neither in the Rule nor in the SRA Guidance Note (www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/guidance/transparency-in-price-and-service/), so it is not clear whether this means simply agreeing to undertake work of that nature, telling clients verbally that the firm will do work of that nature or producing brochures or website information stating that such work is welcomed. If it is the former, then any firm doing work of that nature will be caught.
Firms that are not doing so, or that are not doing so in an adequate way, MUST take steps to ensure that their websites are up to date and that if they do not have a website that the information is available to those who request it in some other form. Infolegal can assist by firms by carrying out a review of their website and then producing any wording that is required in order to assist the firm in becoming compliant. For more information please contact email@example.com or phone Infolegal on 0203 371 1064. Infolegal members have access to the Infolegal Transparency factsheet and checklist which is to be fund on the Infolegal InfoHub.