BSB signals tougher approach to transparency rules compliance

Macleod: The profession has had ample time to comply

Approaching one in 10 chambers admit failing to comply with the Bar Standards Board’s (BSB) service and price transparency rules, with the regulator now set to toughen up its approach to enforcement.

But a third of chambers that have embraced the rules say they are seeing benefits from doing so.

The transparency rules, introduced in July 2019 with a deadline for barristers to comply by January 2020, require chambers, BSB-regulated entities and sole practitioners to provide details on their websites of the types of service they provide and commonly used pricing models.

Public access barristers providing certain types of services have to publish additional information.

The BSB has been checking compliance in various ways since the start of 2020, most recently through its annual regulatory return, which had to be submitted by the end of March 2021.

This showed that 24 organisations – “approaching one in ten” of those that filled in the return – admitted that they were only partially or not at all compliant.

Reasons included the cost of updating websites and the time taken to collect all the information from “large numbers of tenants with different fee scales”.

The BSB said that while the number of non-compliant organisations was “relatively small”, it still made up “a noticeable proportion”. Its supervision team was working with them “to ensure full compliance”.

The BSB said that, since the rules were introduced, it had taken “a guiding and supportive approach” to enable practices to comply, but it was now switching to “a tougher stance, with enforcement action being taken in cases where practices continue to fail to meet the transparency requirements in material respects”.

In addition to spot checks, the regulator has also carried out ‘web sweeps’ of chambers’ websites in 2017, 2019 and 2020 to look at the level of information available.

The most recent found that 21% gave no information on price at all, an improvement on the almost 56% recorded in 2019.

Though the majority of organisations have not seen any impact on their practice since introducing changes in response to the new rules, nearly a third “observed or expected positive impacts”

The report said: “It appears a significant proportion of organisations feel that the increased transparency has helped them to streamline their processes, provide clearer information online in a way that benefits their practice, and leads to easier and smoother dealings with clients and prospective clients as they are better informed.

“For a few respondents, this appears to have led to an increase in instructions due to the increased visibility of information about their practice.”

Ewen Macleod, director of strategy and policy at the BSB, said: “Despite the health emergency and its impact on the Bar, we recognise those in the profession who have made every effort to comply with the new transparency rules.

“Whilst the majority of practices are complying – and many are already seeing the benefits of doing so – a significant minority remain non-compliant.

“This is unacceptable – the profession has had ample time to comply with these rules, which are designed to improve the information available to the public.

“It is therefore right that our approach to non-compliance changes and we will take enforcement action where necessary to ensure compliance.”

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