Transparency failures put three firms in the dock

Websites: First sanctions

Law firms in London, Manchester and Bath have become the first sanctioned for failing to publish price and service information, with compliance made a condition of their authorisation.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) warned last year that it would take disciplinary action against what it called the “small minority” of firms not complying with the transparency rules introduced in December 2018.

Manchester firm AWH Legal was fined £2,000, North London firm Sal & Co £1,000 and Bath firm Renney & Co rebuked for failing to publish mandatory details about costs and their complaints procedures.

Renney & Co also failed to display the mandatory SRA digital badge on its website.

Each firm had a condition imposed on their authorisations that, if they offer any of the services covered by the rules, they must within 30 days provide evidence to the SRA’s “reasonable satisfaction” that they have published on their websites the required information and that it is “clear and accessible and in a prominent place”.

Though only published yesterday, the sanctions were handed out last summer. As a result, AWH Legal and Sal & Co now have comprehensive price information in dedicated sections flagged on their websites’ menu bars, as well as complaints sections. Renney & Co’s website says that it closed on 30 September 2020.

Rebukes for three more firms were published today: Bristol-based Bradford & Co, Rainer Hughes in Essex and OH Parsons in Slough. The former also received the condition on its authorisation, but the latter two did not.

In its regular newsletter, published yesterday, the SRA said it would be carrying out further compliance checks throughout 2021, “so you need to act now”.

The regulator published research last October that claimed the transparency rules were dispelling consumers’ pre-conceptions that legal services were unaffordable.

Separate Law Society research indicated that the exercise of displaying prices has assisted support staff in understanding the complexity of their firm’s pricing structure.

“This greater understanding and knowledge is having a positive consequent effect when the support staff talk to clients, helping to highlight to support team members that they are also a necessary element in the legal transaction, as well as the fee-earners.”

The rules were introduced as a result of the Competition and Markets Authority’s review of the legal market in 2016.

In its progress report last month, the authority identified “clear signs of progress”, with many more firms now providing information on price, service, redress and regulatory status to help consumers shop around.

“However, while the evidence suggests that some customers are taking advantage of the changes, there is still work to do as there only appears to have been a limited impact on the intensity of competition between providers and on sector outcomes.”

The watchdog acknowledged that the rules were likely to have a greater impact over time.

“However, to ensure they have the best chance of success, we also believe that it is important for the LSB and the regulatory bodies to continue to build on the reforms so far.”

In particular, more work was needed on providing information on the quality of legal services, which is now the focus of the profession’s regulators.

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