The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has fined a law firm that did not comply with its transparency rules £3,500, the highest penalty it has issued for the offence.
The fine is a sign both of the regulator starting to flex its new fining powers and of the “more robust approach” it has pledged to take over non-compliance with the rules, which have been in place since December 2018.
According to a notice published yesterday, North London firm Achom & Partners failed to publish mandatory details about its costs for motoring offences, its complaints procedure and to display the SRA’s digital badge on its website.
The firm also failed to respond to the SRA’s letters and emails about this or remedy the issues raised, in breach of paragraph 3.3 of the code of conduct for firms.
As well as the fine and costs of £600, the SRA imposed conditions on Achom & Partners’ authorisation.
These say that, when offering any of the services covered by the transparency rules, it must provide evidence “to the SRA’s reasonable satisfaction” that it publishes the information specified in the rules and that it is “clear and accessible and is in a prominent place on its website”. It has 30 days to do this.
There has been a steady trickle of firms fined for non-compliance with the transparency rules but all have to date been no more than £2,000, the previous maximum the SRA could levy without referring the case to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.
This case was undoubtedly aggravated by the firm’s failure to co-operate with its regulator.
Last month, SRA chief executive Paul Philip said it was undertaking a staged review of the websites of approximately 2,500 firms that previously provided declarations that they were complying with the rules.
“We have undertaken an initial review of 500 websites, and this has indicated a continued low level of full compliance…
“Given the rules have now been in force for coming up to four years and the fact that this group of firms have previously provided a declaration of compliance, we intend to take a more robust enforcement approach.”
There were broadly three groups of solicitors, he added: those opposed to the rules in principle – although these were “few and far between” – others who were trying but not hard enough to comply, and a final group who were trying but not understanding what they had to do.
It is only the third time the SRA has used the new power to date. Earlier this week, an Oxfordshire firm was fined £20,000 for its “reckless” failure to comply with the anti-money laundering requirements. In November, the SRA issued a £15,000 fine on a solicitor who failed clients subject to deputyship orders.