In December 2018, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) introduced its transparency rules to ensure “consumers have the information they need to make an informed choice of legal services provider, including understanding what the costs might be.” Three years on, the SRA commissioned an externally performed research report to “find out whether the rules are having the desired benefits for consumers, the profession and the wider legal services market.” Despite encouraging consumer feedback, many firms fail to comply with the rules fully, often despite making a mandatory declaration of compliance to the contrary. With customers expressing their satisfaction regarding the levels of transparency provided under the rules, coupled with the SRA’s intent to crack down on firms failing to comply, there’s a clear incentive to get your website in order.
To support its strategy, the SRA is, at the time of publishing this article, engaged in a market-wide review of firms, with many firms being contacted to advise them that their website does not meet the requirements of the rules and offering a very small window to rectify the problems or face a fine.
A firm’s website is visible to the SRA, and they can review it at any time. If you are not compliant or unsure if you are compliant, you are at risk. It is highly recommended that all firms review their website to ensure it meets the requirements of the rules rather than being told by the SRA that it does not. This will come with consequences.
Most firms surveyed said they provide some or all of the information required by the regulator. Breaking down compliance by individual element:
- 75% price and service information, but 58% admitted they are not publishing all of the required information
- 88% displaying the SRA clickable logo
- 88% complaints procedures
- 76% details of how to complain to the SRA/Legal Ombudsman
Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said: ‘We introduced the transparency rules because all the evidence showed neither the public nor small businesses had the information they needed. This review shows that’s now changing, and we want to see that progress continue, increasing access to justice and boosting competition across the whole of the legal market.
‘We’ll continue to monitor the effects of the rules going forward and our Board will consider whether and how we should enhance our requirements and the supporting resources that we provide to firms and consumers.’
The SRA stated: ‘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.’
Counting the cost of non-compliance
The most obvious cost of non-compliance is the financial penalty that the SRA can impose. The SRA states: ‘As part of our wider reforms of our approach to issuing financial penalties, we have introduced a fixed penalty regime for dealing with lower level/administrative breaches of our rules. This involves fines of £750 for first offences, and £1,500 for subsequent breaches. One of the areas where we are using fixed penalties is for ‘failure to publish the required costs or complaints information, or display a clickable logo, in accordance with the SRA Transparency Rules’.
Consumers’ buying habits would appear to favour firms with clear, compliant websites. The SRA survey says that: ‘55% of individuals who instructed solicitors state they compared prices and services of different providers before instructing one. This is significantly higher than the proportion of respondents who stated they compared providers at Year 1 (46% of individual consumers). Compared with individual consumers, we find that a higher proportion of SME consumers who instructed solicitors compared prices and services of more than one provider (60% of SMEs). This is also significantly higher than the proportion of SMEs who stated they compared providers at Year 1 (48% of SME consumers).’
How can Paragon help?
Ensuring your website is compliant is not as straightforward as it might first seem. Paragon has developed a close working relationship with The Strategic Partner (TSP), a leading risk, regulation and compliance consultancy for the legal profession. As a result of this collaboration, Paragon’s existing and prospective clients have free access to TSP’s “SRA Fee Transparency Website Compliance Checklist”, a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to the individual requirements of the transparency rules, helpful guidance notes and a table to record your firm’s current level of compliance. David Green, co-founder of The Strategic Partner, said: ‘The checklist in this guide will help you identify if your website is following the requirements to the expected standard, along with some information on what should be included.’
To receive your copy of the checklist, please contact:
Direct Dial: 020 3868 4352
SRA – Transparency in price and service guidance – https://www.sra.org.uk/solicitors/guidance/transparency-in-price-and-service/
SRA – Transparency rules – more checks on website information – https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/sra-update-107-transparency-rules-checks/
SRA – Transparency rules bringing benefits to firms and consumers – https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/news/press/3-year-transparency-review/
SRA – Year Three Evaluation of the SRA Transparency Rules – https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/research-publications/year-three-evaluation-sra-transparency-rules/ & https://www.sra.org.uk/globalassets/documents/sra/research/year-three-evaluation-of-the-sra-transparency-rules.pdf?version=4ad099