Not a new topic, but one certainly worth revisiting because the SRA is, one again, ramping up its website reviews focusing on Transparency Rules compliance.
Last summer they warned us of their intention, and we are seeing firms increasingly receiving communications from the regulator advising them of breaching the rules.
Coming into force in December 2018, the Transparency Rules require all regulated firms to display specified information on their websites, including their SRA number, the SRA digital badge (a mechanism to prove they are a regulated entity), complaints information, costs for certain services, and the qualifications and experience of fee earners.
According to the SRA, the rules are designed to ensure people have accurate and relevant information about a solicitor or firm when they are considering purchasing legal services.
The key aim was to help members of the public and small businesses make informed choices, whilst also improving competition in the legal market.
Despite a recent study suggesting that transparency rules have very little impact the public’s purchasing behaviour (shocked face), regulated law firms are required to adhere to them.
Back to the start – the Transparency Rules
There are very specific requirements, with four key areas covered:
- Rule 1 – Costs information
- Rule 2 – Complaints information
- Rule 3 – Publication
- Rule 4 – Regulatory information
Rule 1 (costs information) is the headline grabber, but it only applies to some legal services, namely:
Individual legal services
- Probate and estate administration
- Immigration (but not asylum applications)
- Summary road traffic offences
- Employment – advising/representing claimants in relation to unfair or wrongful dismissal.
Business legal services
- Employment – advising/representing respondents in relation to unfair or wrongful dismissal
- Debt recovery up to £100,000
- Advice/representation in relation to licensing applications for business premises.
Rules 2–4 apply to all SRA regulated law firms, not just those who provide the services listed above.
We went into some depth about what compliance looks like in our previous post SRA Transparency Rules in a nutshell.
The rules do not apply to unregulated legal practices, since the SRA has no jurisdiction there.
If you are a freelance solicitor (providing reserved legal activities) – you are required to comply with the costs and complaints aspect of the rules.
Only regulated firms are allowed to use the digital badge. Unless you have permission, you are not supposed to replicate the digital badge (or other SRA logos for that matter) on your email footers or letterhead.
It is also worth noting that for ABSs, groups that offer other services, and international firms in multiple jurisdictions, the SRA digital badge should only be present on the pages that relate to the legal work regulated in England and Wales.
Common mistakes and breaches
Reviewing hundreds of law firm websites ourselves, we have seen how widely firms interpret the Transparency Rules.
The profession was initially slow to adopt the rules, much to the regulator’s frustration. But things have changed and most websites we review are looking much more complaint. It would be true to say that most breaches are now far more subtle – and harder to spot!
When the SRA does write to firms citing breaches they tend to be relatively minor. Three of the most common ones are:
- The rate of VAT is not specified at 20%
- Complaints information has not been updated in light of recent rule changes from the Legal Ombudsman (you can read more about the changes here)
- The experience of staff undertaking each area of work is not stated or easily accessible
Many firms have been caught out on these, and other minor technicalities. You might argue that the regulator is being overly picky (especially in an age of supposedly principles based regulation). Even so, it is sensible to review your own compliance to avoid unwanted SRA attention.
Here are our ‘top tips’ of things you can check today to ensure you are complaint:
- Familiarise yourself with the SRA guidance on Transparency Rules.
- Is your company information correct? (including your registered address and company number)
- Is your SRA number present and ‘prominent’?
- Have you included the words ‘Authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority’?
- Is the rate at which VAT is charged cited in your costs information?
- Have you included information about team members’ qualifications, experience and your supervision structure?
- Is your complaints information present and ‘prominent’ (the SRA wants your policy to include their contact details or link to ‘report a solicitor’, and don’t forget the LeO process changed on 1stApril 2023!)
Remember, key transparency information must be in a visible place. Tucked away in a link that is not overly obvious is not considered ‘visible’, which results in a black mark. This is especially true for team members – the public should be able to easily access this when looking at the legal services offered by your firm.
Whilst these might sound like picky things, it will serve you well to look at your website in the same way an SRA auditor would.
- Review regularly– at least annually, and record your review (you may wish to check your digital badge is working more frequently)
- Ensure consistency– do your client care letter and terms of business tie in with the information on your website?
- Get another pair of eyes– a review by an independent third party can increase objectivity
- Update your website– somebody has to be in charge of updating transparency information when things change (e.g. you put prices up, disbursements increase, and staff movements, changes from the regulators)
- Think like a regulator– this is most definitely a tick-box exercise!