The Bar Council is still unhappy with the price transparency regime proposed by the Bar Standards Board (BSB), despite the regulator’s decision to limit publication of information about fees to public access work.
The revised rules came under fire from the Legal Services Consumer Panel earlier this month for not going far enough.
While praising the BSB for shifting the focus from bespoke services to public access work, the Bar Council said the revised regime failed to make clear that barristers could refuse to give a quote – either because the cab-rank rule did not apply or because the instruction would need to be refused under the conflict of interest rules.
“We note that barristers are required to explain to the client if they are not ‘able’ to provide the legal services in question, although this seems to pre-suppose that they should.”
The Bar Council said it had “significant concerns” about the quality of the evidence used to justify the proposals set out in the BSB’s September consultation paper, and in particular a pilot study suggesting that far from damaging barristers, price transparency could help them thrive.
“The pilot study is based on a sample of only nine businesses, comprising barristers’ chambers, entities and sole practitioners, and samples of only 35 clients’ views.
“These samples are too small to be statistically significant and we do not think meaningful conclusions can be drawn from them.”
The Bar Council advised the BSB to “give thought” to the question of enforceability, where information on websites was managed centrally by chambers but the responsibility for enforcement ultimately fell on individual barristers because chambers were not regulated entities.
On the question of whether websites should state the “most commonly used pricing models for legal services”, the Bar Council warned that a rule of this kind might confuse less experienced consumers and heighten expectations that a particular fee model “is available when it may not be”.
Instead the Bar Council “reiterated its view” that this information should be “managed centrally on the Legal Choices website”.
The Bar Council said it did not think the proposed rule requiring websites to “provide information about the factors which might influence the timescales of a case” should apply to cases involving a solicitor, and would be “more appropriate” if limited to public access work.
Requiring websites to carry links to the Legal Ombudsman’s decision data, and BSB’s register of barristers were seen as putting barristers at a “competitive disadvantage” with solicitors.
The Bar Council asked for personal injury and family matters to be excluded from the new rules on public access work, again to avoid unfairness to barristers who would be subject to “higher transparency requirements” than other lawyers.
Hourly rates were described as not providing prospective clients with “any meaningful information” about the total cost of work, with “such a large degree of variation” based on seniority and experience.
“For the vast majority of barristers, public access work constitutes a minority of their practice.
“Concerns have been raised with us that the requirement for barristers to publicise prices for work that they do not consider to be standardised would lead to a reduction in the number of practitioners who would be willing to do public access work.
“This would have a knock-on effect on access to justice for prospective clients.”