Placing law firms’ complaints data and insurance claims in the public domain are among the “initial ideas” published today by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to improve transparency in the legal market – but it is not currently planning to mandate firms to publish prices.
The regulator said that as well as helping consumers and small businesses choose lawyers, “more accessible data can be a useful tool for firms too, helping them to reach a wider market”.
The discussion paper  outlined the SRA’s vision for a beefed-up public register available on its website that would include basic practice details about firms and individual solicitors, and collate the various sources of disciplinary information already in the public domain in one place.
In relation to first-tier complaints records, the SRA acknowledged the common concern that consumers would not be able to understand the data without context – for example, a large firm is likely to receive a greater volume of complaints than a sole practitioner.
“Ofgem and the Office of the Rail Regulator have overcome this issue by publishing the number of complaints received per 100,000 customer accounts or journeys respectively.”
It continued: “We already collect some data from firms on first-tier complaints through the annual return… However, we need to consider whether this is the right information or whether different information may be more useful, such as proportion of all transactions that resulted in a complaint being made, the speed of response or diversity information.
“If we decided to publish first-tier complaint data, we need to consider the frequency with which we collect this information, to make sure consumers can access accurate and relevant information and that firms are able to quickly demonstrate improvements they have made.”
The SRA said it understood that complaints data was not a complete picture, “but we need to balance this with the fact that it is, nonetheless, used as an indicator of quality in many sectors. It is one which we believe consumers would find useful”.
On indemnity claims, details of which are also collected by the SRA in the annual returns, the paper noted that the impact of a potential client seeing that a firm’s insurer has made a payment in relation to a claim for negligence could continue long after the firm has improved procedures or after the employee responsible for the negligence has left the firm.
“We also recognise that firms are not in absolute control about whether or not a payment is made because of the role of insurers who may, for example, wish to settle for tactical reasons. We therefore need to think carefully about whether to publish this data, how it could be presented and any contextual information that it may be necessary to provide alongside the raw data.”
The SRA also highlighted four categories of data which it did not plan to require solicitors and firms to provide, but that it would host on the register on a voluntary basis: quality information, specialism, price information and service delivery.
“This is in the expectation that the market will reward those that do and further incentivise other providers to publish their information.”
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is currently considering whether to make it mandatory for legal services providers to publish quality and price information, with strong support from the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) in particular.
The SRA said: “Although we agree with the CMA on the need for increased transparency in relation to price and quality, we would prefer that the market responded to the needs of consumers without additional regulatory requirements.”
Specifically on price, the SRA said it recognised that providing an accurate estimate of the costs of a particular matter could be difficult because of the uncertain nature of some legal transactions, particularly litigation.
“We therefore do not feel that the level of price transparency the LSCP and CMA would like to see is possible in all areas at the moment…
“Having given this issue careful consideration, our initial view is that we should not be mandating the publication of price information at this stage. We would like instead for firms to consider what pricing information they could publish on their own websites and include in our digital register… However, in the absence of progress this may need to be something that we return to in the future.”
The SRA said its enhanced register would help consumers understand the differences between providers, especially in the event that its proposal to enable solicitors to deliver non-reserved legal services by practising in an unauthorised organisation goes through.
As well as pressure from the CMA and consumer panel, the SRA noted that the government’s open data strategy provided that data should be released unless there was a good reason to withhold it.
“Data is now freely available to help consumers make decisions in relation to all areas of life, from purchasing car insurance to deciding to which school to send our children. However, very little data is easily accessible and available to consumers in the legal services market…
“We do recognise that increased consumer choice may lead to confusion for some consumers. However, limiting choice stifles innovation and ensuring consumers are provided with the help they need to make a well-informed choice outweighs the risk of confusion.
“We will manage this risk through a range of regulatory action, including requiring SRA-regulated firms and individuals to explain the protections available to their clients, increasing competitive forces that drive firms to give consumers information and publishing more data so as to stimulate the development of choice tools.”
Part of the consultation process, however, was also “to think carefully about the potential for unintended market consequences”, it said.
“We are mindful of placing additional burdens on firms by requiring the collation and/or publication of additional data. An option may be to consider exclusions for some requirements for specific categories of firms.”
SRA chief executive Paul Philip said: “Most people and small businesses are still not accessing legal services. When they do, they are not shopping around. It is unsurprising when the information out there is so limited. We want to help consumers, so they are not left making blind choices…
“If we get this right, we could help create a more competitive market, where consumers can make better choices and forward-thinking firms thrive. It will also help small businesses access the legal services that could help them succeed and grow.”