What are the SRA Transparency Rules?
The clue is in the name! Law firms are to be more transparent in respect of the prices and services that they offer. The SRA transparency rules are part of the SRA’s bid to improve access to legal services. The aim is to ensure that the public is in a position to make informed choices about legal services and providers.
This comes on the back of the Competition and Markets Authority Legal Services Market Study report published on 15th December 2016. The report recommended that improvements needed to be made in relation to the quality and prominence of price, service, redress and regulatory status on legal service provider’s websites.
When do the SRA Transparency Rules apply?
The Rules come into force on 6th December 2018 so the clock is ticking. If you rely on external web designers, you must take their lead times into account.
Who does this affect?
Short answer: every firm of solicitors regulated by the SRA.
Whilst the price and service transparency requirements only apply to certain practice areas (see below) there is certain regulatory and complaints information that all firms must display on their websites.
The first wave of practice areas affected are:
|Services for Individuals
|Services for Businesses
|Debt recovery (up to £100,000)
|Probate and estate administration (non-contentious, UK assets)
|Employment tribunal (respondent unfair and wrongful dismissal)
|Immigration (excluding asylum)
|Licensing applications for business premises
|Motoring offences (summary only)
|Employment tribunals (claimant unfair or wrongful dismissal only)
Firms undertaking any of the above need to provide the following detailed information in a clear and accessible manner in respect of the pricing and service.
Note that wills, family, and personal injury are not on the list, although they were in the initial draft, so we can expect them to reappear at some point. That is the nature of regulatory creep.
What should price transparency look like?
Firms will need to set out a full description of the total cost or average cost of the service including disbursements and the basis of charges including hourly rates and fixed fees. If that is not possible, then firms are allowed to give a range of prices (within reason).
If any fees or disbursements attract VAT then this must also be set out.
The way in which firms implement these rules is up for interpretation in many respects and the guidance certainly provides for some flexibility. For example, firms may choose to use a quote calculator tool or set out a pricing menu. You may choose to have one comprehensive pricing page or incorporate the information in the pages that specifically relate to the legal services provided.
Ensuring that the information is clear and accessible again enables firms the adopt a personal style or approach to the way that the information is shared. For example, some firms may choose to use more infographics or other visual prompts.
Some firms are concerned that publishing prices in this way will undermine their place in the market and encourage clients to shop around purely on price. Clearly, the regulators certainly hope so!
And what if the firm down the road doesn’t play fair, and artificially knocks 20% off their ‘average’ fee?
Our advice is that most firms will be better off not engaging in a race to the bottom on price alone. There is always someone willing to do a job for £10 less. Instead, your job should be to look at your pricing strategically: what does it say about us and our position in the market? Is it consistent with our brand?
Taking it one step further, you should then decide how best to communicate the value that your firm adds, thereby diverting the client away from a decision purely on price. You might, for example, decide that quality, personal service, trust, communication are more important than price alone.
What should service transparency look like?
With regards to the service itself, firms are required to provide details of likely stages and timescales and what would ordinarily be provided within the price displayed.
If any of the work is conducted under CFAs or DBAs (e.g. employment law), an explanation needs to be provided to ensure that clients are aware when they have to pay for the services themselves.
Controversially, firms must set out the experience of all members of staff providing the service, including supervisors. This will mean that firms will need to keep on top of their websites to ensure that details of all new staff members have been uploaded and former staff members removed.
What about GDPR, we hear you cry? Does this type of information be deemed to be personal data and as such fall within the confines of GDPR? Consideration may need to be given to any members of staff that may not want their details published on your website and whether alternative drafting methods could be used. You will almost certainly need to check your staff privacy notices to make sure they are adequate.
If you don’t have a website all of the above needs to be readily available on request. The rules don’t specify what format this may take. For example, it may be an information sheet or pamphlet that prospective clients could take away with them.
All firms have to do something to comply
Complaints and regulatory transparency rules apply to all law firms. This means that all firms must publish details of their complaints handling procedure plus how and when to make a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.
Whilst the rules are specific with regards to pricing information being prominent on websites there is no such requirement in respect of complaints information. Whilst you obviously can’t hide it away in some obscure corner you may be able to use a simple “Complaints” footer, for example.
Helpfully, the SRA has produced some template complaints wording.
Firms must also ensure that their authorisation number and the words “Authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority” appear on their website.
Lastly, firms will be able to download the SRA’s digital badge from 6th December which must be displayed on their website by Spring 2019 (the date is yet to be confirmed). This might need some web design input.