LSB agrees to limit price transparency to public access barristers

Barristers: Public access rules cover areas not required of solicitors

The Legal Services Board (LSB) has approved plans by the Bar Standards Board (BSB) which will require public access barristers, but not other self-employed barristers, to publish fees for routine legal services on their websites.

The BSB’s proposed transparency regime was criticised earlier this year by the Legal Services Consumer Panel for not going far enough, and by the Bar Council for going too far.

Public access barristers would be subject to a regime similar to the one introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in December last year.

Last year, the BSB backtracked on its initial plan for publishing prices and service information – as required by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – most notably by suggesting that instead of putting hourly rates on their websites, chambers should simply have to tell potential clients to contact them for a quote.

This would still show a commitment to transparency, the BSB said.

Approving the BSB’s transparency rules, the LSB described them as an “adequate starting point” but said it hoped barristers would “go beyond this”, noting that the best practice set out in the regulator’s accompanying guidance did just that.

The LSB acknowledged that the CMA’s market study of legal services drew a distinction between customers using the public access scheme – where “increased public transparency will be most relevant and beneficial” – and barristers instructed by a solicitor.

The CMA said solicitors’ role as intermediaries in instructing barristers would be strengthened if there was a “general improvement” in price transparency.

The LSB said the BSB had “sought to strike a balance between the need for increased transparency, with providing consumers with useful information which they can easily understand”.

The LSB went on: “In support of the BSB’s position, it has reasoned that if it had required the publication of more specific price information in respect of the type of bespoke services most often provided by barristers instructed by solicitors, it would have had to be heavily caveated.

“The BSB considers that this would be of limited use and may even cause confusion to consumers of those services. It would also have created a significant burden for barristers and chambers.”

The BSB’s new transparency rules require all self-employed barristers, chambers and BSB entities to make it clear on their websites that they will provide a quote for work if asked for one.

They must also set out their most commonly used pricing models for legal services, such as fixed fees or hourly rates; the main areas of law they cover; a description of their most popular legal services and information on timescales.

Chambers and BSB entities must also publish, alongside the information on the internal complaints procedures they must already provide, details of how to complain to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), with a link to LeO’s data on decisions involving barristers over the past 12 months and to the barristers’ register.

Public access barristers must also give details of “indicative fees and the circumstances in which they may vary”.

The BSB listed in a price transparency policy statement attached to its new rules the kinds of consumer legal services where fees must be published.

These are providing employment tribunal cases relating to unfair or wrongful dismissal cases only; fast-track personal injury cases; financial disputes arising out of divorces with joint assets of under £300,000 ; immigration appeals to the First-tier Tribunal; Inheritance Act disputes over estates worth up to £300,000; licensing applications for business premises; summary only motoring offences; and winding-up petitions.

The Bar Council asked for personal injury and family matters to be deleted from the list, to avoid unfairness to barristers who would be subject to “higher transparency requirements” than other lawyers.

Neither category appears in the SRA’s list, but the latter includes conveyancing.

To monitor the changes, the BSB said it would be making “spot checks” from 2020, and “evaluate the effectiveness of the rules” by 2021.

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