In January, the Legal Services Board (LSB) of England & Wales released its “Regulatory Performance: Transitional Assessment Review” looking at the transitional assessment of each legal services regulatory body against the LSB’s regulatory performance standards. The report found that it had “sufficient assurance that the regulatory bodies have met the minimum required level of performance against the majority of expected outcomes”.
Transparency across the legal services market lies at the heart of consumer satisfaction. Recent Competition and Market Authority statistics found that before choosing their legal service provider 85% of consumers want better access to information, 53% want information about price, and 37% of consumers what to know about the quality of the service they would receive. In response, the Solicitors Regulation Authority released new price transparency rules, which requires regulated firms to publish price and service information on their websites.
Since 6 December 2018, all solicitors firms had to publish cost information in relation to conveyancing, probate, debt, employment and immigration. The new rules dictate that firms must provide a total cost or an average or range of costs, as well as explain the basis of these charges, including any hourly rate or fixed fees. Firms also must be clear on whether VAT is included, while also highlighting likely disbursements, and their costs. Any conditional or damages-based fees must be fully explained to clients who may have to make payments.
In addition to price transparency, firms are also required to ensure consumers under stand the services they require and are receiving. The rules demand firms
- Explain what services are included for the quoted price
- Highlight any services not included within the price, which a client may reasonably expect to be
- Include information on key stages and typical timescales of these, and
- Publish the qualifications and experience of anyone carrying out the work and of their supervisors.
SRA’s ‘Looking to the Future’ programme is based on a sound argument that law firms must become more transparent if they are to survive. Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said: “Publishing information on price, services and protections will not only benefit the public, but will also help law firms win new business. Research shows that people struggle to find clear information about the services firms offer and think using a solicitor is more expensive than it actually is. We are providing guidance and support for firms to help them meet the new requirements and make the most of the opportunities they bring.”
The SRA has taken consumer protection and transparency a step further, introducing a new Digital Badge. Provided via software which will make sure only regulated firms can display it, the badge will show online visitors which firms are regulated and provide them with a link to information on the protections this provides. Displaying the badge will help firms differentiate themselves from unregulated providers. Use of the badge is initially voluntary but will become a mandatory requirement during 2019.
Challenges of Transparency
Due to the business structures of many law firms, publishing fees is no straightforward matter, leading to some to use a confusing blend of charts, costs schedules, calculators and costs estimates. It is the unknown factors of pursuing legal cases which can alter costs. Russell Conway, senior partner at Oliver Fisher, notes, “It’s the wiggle room issue which is going to be the bellwether as to how successful this project is”.
Price transparency undoubtedly remains vital to consumer protection and satisfaction. However, there are concerns that some consumers may be heavily influenced by price, rather than by skill and expertise. David Kirwan questions if, in a new transparent pricing environment, consumers will truly stop and weigh skills and expertise, rather than revert to low costs. These concerns are not isolated to the UK market, as globally practitioners have expressed concerns about an eventual ‘race to the bottom’. Kirwan notes that “How we as an industry respond, and the way in which we convince consumers that it’s worth potentially paying more to receive a high-quality service, will be crucial if we are to retain the high standards for which this country’s legal sector has become known”.
In considering the question of quality of legal services, greater transparency and public access to disciplinary records is also needed. One of the key findings of the LSB report highlighted that regulators must continue to maintain records of disciplinary sanctions in their official registers. The SRA has issued guidance to help firms clearly understand their obligations under Rule 2.1 of the SRA Transparency Rules to publish complaints. This guidance includes information on complaints handling procedure details, how and when a complaint can be made to the Legal Ombudsman, and details about how and when a complaint can be made to the SRA. Sarah Chambers, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) stated that “Making enforcement data available to consumers is an area that will particularly benefit from consistency in approach”.
Ultimately, providing the public with as much clarity and information as possible when it comes to the legal services they require can benefit not only the consumer, but promote and ensure quality and competence of the industry as a whole. The new transparency rules promulgated by the SRA in December 2018 will improve public access to legal services, ensuring such information on legal service providers is readily available to consumers.
Interested in transparency and enforcement? Contact us and share what is happening in your jurisdiction. There are also opportunities to get involved with the topic at the annual conference. Contact Jim McKay (firstname.lastname@example.org) to become involved as a speaker or session moderator.