Nearly six in 10 law firms are failing to publish the full cost and service information required by the transparency rules, a report for the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has found.
The SRA warned that it was carrying out “an ongoing programme of proactive web sweeps” and using its new fixed penalty scheme to fine firms which failed to follow the rules.
The regulator said spot checks suggested that “even among firms who declare they are complying, many are not meeting all the requirements of the rules”.
It promised to continue to check compliance levels, “offering to support to firms where improvements need to be made, but taking action where they are wilfully failing to adhere”.
A consultancy, Economic Insights, was commissioned to review the rules, which first came into force in December 2018, surveying 2,022 users of legal services, 1,021 small businesses and 274 law firms, along with a small number of in-depth interviews.
The report found that exactly half of consumers and 60% of SMEs who had recently engaged with a law firm reported comparing price and service information before choosing their firm.
Most consumers (55%) and 61% of SMEs who compared costs and services of different firms “found it easy to do so using information available online”, while 21% of consumers found it difficult.
A similar proportion of consumers, who visited a firm’s website before instructing a solicitor, recalled seeing the SRA’s clickable logo, a huge improvement on the 15% who said this in the one-year review of the transparency rules, with most stating it helped them understand the protection they would receive.
However, 48% of consumers who instructed a solicitor believed that all legal services providers were regulated (up from 42% in the first-year review). Although exactly half of consumers were aware of the Solicitors Register (up from 44%), the proportion who actively used it fell from 11% to 8%.
Meanwhile, only 32% of law firms considered that the transparency rules were good for business and 42% considered them beneficial to consumers.
Three-quarters of law firms told researchers that they were providing some or all of the required information on price and services, but only 42% said they were providing all of it.
Almost nine out of ten said they displayed the SRA’s clickable logo and gave details of complaints procedures.
However, the SRA said its spot checks had revealed that “even among firms who declared that they are complying, most are not meeting all the requirements of the rules”. The SRA’s clickable logo was not always displayed properly and so that “the dynamic link” to information about the firm on the SRA website did not work.
The SRA said “one of the areas where we are using fixed penalties”, which involves £750 for first offences and £1,500 for subsequent breaches, was for failure to publish costs or complaints information, or display the SRA logo.
Researchers said a minority of firms (21%) were already voluntarily publishing price and service information for other practice areas and 16% said they planned to do so.
Around two-thirds of law firms were using the Solicitors Register, mainly to check details of other solicitors they dealt with.
Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, said: “We introduced the transparency rules because all the evidence showed neither the public nor small businesses had the information they needed.
“This review shows that’s now changing, and we want to see that progress continue, increasing access to justice and boosting competition across the whole of the legal market.”