The Law Society has outlined its opposition to the idea that law firms be required to signpost clients to review websites as part of moves to generate indicators of providers’ quality.
“We would be strongly concerned if signposting, embedding or engaging with review sites were to become mandatory for law firms,” it said.
“Such a move would be likely to benefit larger firms who have more resource to manage and maintain the ‘back end’ of customer review or other DCT [digital comparison tool] platforms.
“If this takes off, it is likely to negatively impact the small firms and sole practitioners, who will be left behind. There would also be a disproportional impact on BAME solicitors, given that they are ‘over-represented’ in such practices.”
With transparency rules now in place for price and service standards in certain areas of practice, the next challenge for legal regulators – under pressure from the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – is to improve transparency of quality indicators.
Responding to a Legal Services Board (LSB) discussion paper, the Law Society said the use of consumer views to generate quality indicators was likely to be “subjective and influenced by perception of outcome”.
It went on: “Thus, it may be particularly challenging in many practice areas. For instance, criminal defence services often attract unwarranted complaints of poor quality by defendants following convictions and likewise in contested litigation or debt collection cases.”
Rather, the response said, the regulatory system and minimum entry standards should provide assurance around quality of legal advice and “improving awareness of these amongst consumers should be a crucial part of developing the overall strategy on quality indicators”.
There was already a range of mandatory and self-regulatory quality marks in the legal sector, which could be updated.
“Therefore, an important part of the LSB’s strategy should be to examine how to enhance the level of consumer engagement with existing quality schemes, prior to considering new measures.”
The LSB identified three elements to quality in this context: technical quality, customer service and outcomes.
The Law Society agreed, saying: “The distinction between [them] will be undermined if regulators decide to give priority to consumers’ subjectively assessed experience which place emphasis on only one of the three quality dimensions…
“It will be important that consumers have access to a range of sources of information to allow them to assess all dimensions of quality.
“Contextual information that sits around indicators could constructively encourage consumers to consider other aspects of quality as well as customer care and can be particularly helpful in providing meaningful quality markers for diverse practice areas.”
This meant that proposals to promote client feedback should be accompanied by technical quality markers, such as specialism, practising experience, accreditations and complexity of matters handled.
DCTs operating in the legal sector should have to include these markers, the society went on. This could be done through an accreditation scheme for DCTs, similar to those developed by Ofgem and Ofcom.
The LSB and regulators would also need to monitor the impact of DCTs on competition: “For example, the CMA found that some DCTs imposed commercial conditions on suppliers preventing them from offering services at a lower cost.
“Also, there is a risk that larger firms could monopolise these sites with the gap between the large and small firms widening, with smaller firms leaving the market. This could result in less consumer choice, higher prices, causing an adverse impact on access to justice.”
The response came out against the idea of a single online register of all regulated lawyers.
“This could not only add extra cost for frontline regulators and the profession, but also increase consumer confusion.
“Legal professions are regulated to differing levels, with varying degrees of client protections attached, yet the majority of consumers believe that legal providers are regulated to the same level.”
It would be better to revamp existing professional registers run by regulators and display them separately in a more prominent way on the pan-regulator Legal Choices website.
Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce said: “It is vital that any decision to determine suitable quality indicators is supported by robust evidence.
“Therefore, the Law Society supports the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s pilot with DCTs and law firms to test potential scenarios in practice and evidence from the pilot should be used to inform any future policy considerations.”