75% of law firm websites fail SRA’s transparency test
The most common breach was failure to provide complaints information (over 50% of the sample fell down on this point). That is perhaps reflective of the fact that the focus has been on price transparency. It is often forgotten that all firms are required to publish complaints information.
Immigration firms were singled out for special criticism, with 30% failing to take any steps to be compliant with the new rules.
At this stage the repercussions are not too severe. The regulator will be ‘engaging’ with firms to help them get their websites in order.
These results have clearly disappointed the SRA, and they have committed to a rolling programme of website reviews to check firms are getting the message.
On an equally worrying note, the SRA review found that 10% of firms in their sample had websites that did not even work.
What you need to do
- Have a look at our ‘In a nutshell’ guidance to the Transparency Rules.
- Assuming that you have already taken steps to comply, use this as an opportunity to produce a second version of transparency information.
- If you are caught by the price transparency part of the Transparency Rules, ensure that your published prices are still correct.
- Are you clear on the most common price transparency breaches:
- the amount of VAT applied to costs and disbursements;
- the key stages and timescales that apply to the work; and
- the description and cost of likely disbursements?
- Assess whether your transparency wording is clear and prominent – not hidden in ‘Legal Notices’ in the footer.
- Are you complying with the letter, but not spirit, or the rules? If so, you are at risk of SRA criticism.
- Check that you have published your complaints procedure. Remember, this applies to all firms.
Diversity monitoring – collect and publish your data
This biannual reporting duty is a relatively straightforward exercise, but it is compulsory. And it needs some planning.
What you need to do
- Read our guidance note on the collection, reporting and publication of diversity data.
- Collect your employees’ diversity data.
- Report your data to the SRA.
- Publish your data.
Freelance solicitors approved – no PII required
This is despite strong opposition from both the Law Society and the Legal Services Consumer Panel – both of whom have serious concerns about the impact on public protection.
From November (subject to any unforeseen delay) freelance solicitors will be able to practise outside of a regulated firm or sole practice. They will be entitled to deliver both reserved (such as litigation), which will require the solicitor to carry ‘appropriate’ insurance, and un-reserved work (such as general legal advice), which will not require insurance cover.
This is part of the SRA’s drive to remove regulatory red tape and improve access to legal services. It certainly achieves the former, but at what cost?
Why it matters
And now they will not have to fund expensive minimum terms PI insurance, or be subject to run-off costs of shutting down a practice.
However, we would argue that flexibility for the profession is not the point. The reforms suggested by the CMA back in 2016, which were taken up with gusto by the SRA and LSB, were geared towards public access to legal services. The authors of that report would surely not have intended that the public would be put at risk by implementing its recommendations.
How many clients will appreciate the difference between a freelance solicitor and a fully authorised and regulated solicitor, let alone the difference in insurance cover? It is astonishing that a public interest regulator would reduce public protection in this way.
However, we anticipate that insurers might well have the last word on this. How much appetite will there be to underwrite litigation, property and probate work conducted outside of the safety of a regulated firm?
That much-maligned ‘red tape’ does often serve a real purpose.
Accountants approved to administer oaths
This is part of the accountancy regulator’s long-running campaign to become an approved regulator of all reserved activities (including conveyancing and litigation).
Accountants can already deliver probate services under the regulation of the ICAEW. Having been supported by the Legal Services Board in their application to extend their reach into solicitors’ traditional territory, it came as a shock when the previous Lord Chancellor rejected the application.
Why it matters
And of course, lawyers would be wrong to assume this removes the ‘threat’ of accountants eating their lunch. The ABS model allows accountants to set up as law firms in their own right, just as the Big Four and various other regional practices have done.
We anticipate that Multi-disciplinary practices, a part of the Legal Services Act which have so far failed to take off, will become more popular as solicitors and accountants (and other professions) realise that there are mutual benefits to working together formally.
The ICAEW may also have bigger headaches. The Legal Services Board’s Internal Governance Rules (currently in consultation), requires a clear split between legal regulators’ representative and regulatory functions. This is a big problem for the accountancy regulator – in fact it was the reason that the previous Lord Chancellor refused to extend their reach into legal services. Could we in fact see ICAEW dropping out of legal regulation altogether?
Practice notes and guidance
- Criminal prosecutions of victims of trafficking (Law Society)
- Post-EU Exit: Financial sanctions – Guidance (HM Treasury)
- Dr Akbar Ali Malik has been hit with a £500,000 (!!) confiscation order under the Proceeds of Crime Act for ignoring a council’s planning enforcement notice. The immigration lawyer converted his house into an office and failed over several years to appeal the council’s refusal to grant his change of use application. He will be imprisoned for 5 years if he fails to pay the fine within three months. The SRA will no doubt be waiting in the wings.
- Gary Ackinclose, already subject to conditions on his practising certificate, was struck off for taking fees directly into his personal bank account.
- Jeffrey Jackson was fined £3,750 for various breaches of the Accounts Rules and failing to properly secure client files after closing his firm.
The London Wellbeing for Lawyers Conference 2019 in aid of LawCare
This groundbreaking event is organised by the Wellbeing Work Alliance alongside our charity partner, LawCare. The conference will be raising money for LawCare
Full details here.
Book before 1 July for a £75 early-bird discount.
Use our exclusive discount code 1945 to receive an additional 15% off.