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“Web sweep” of 500 firms to check prices are published

Websites: SRA to check compliance

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is to carry out randomised “web sweeps” of around 500 law firms over the next few months to check they are publishing fees for common consumer transactions.

The regulator is also alerting consumer groups and the public to its new price transparency regime, which came into force in December last year.

A snapshot survey by Legal Futures [1] of 50 law firms on the day the new rules came into force in December showed that only 28% had complied with the new rules, which require fees to be published for conveyancing, probate, motoring offences and employment tribunals among others.

Paul Philip, chief executive of the SRA, said the regulator would take a “proportionate approach” to enforcement.

“It’s a bit like people who don’t fill in requests for information. We’re saying this is not a hugely important thing, but you’re obliged to do it, so you’re forcing us into taking disproportionate action when you should just comply and move forward.

“We come up against this type of thing time and time again. I have no doubt we will end up with a rump of people who end up in the corner saying they are just not doing it.

“At that point in time we will decide what to do. We will address it in a proportionate way but in an increasingly forceful way to ensure compliance.”

Mr Philip said the SRA would take a “standard auditing approach” to price transparency.

“We’ll take a sample and see whether we think that sample is representative of the general population. If it is, we’ll take a larger sample.”

He was speaking at a media briefing at the SRA’s London office, as the regulator launched its revised enforcement strategy, with subject-specific guides on its approach to issues like drink-driving or social media.

The SRA said in its guide on enforcing price transparency that mitigating factors included compliance in “most areas”, delays in publishing caused by “technical/practical issues” regarding marketing materials or websites, and a plan to achieve compliance.

Aggravating factors included “deliberately or recklessly” providing “vague, misleading or meaningless information” and failing to display it in a prominent place.

Along with the strategy, the SRA published the threshold test it expects solicitors to use where they believe misconduct has taken place and are considering reporting it to the regulator.

The SRA launched a consultation on how solicitors should report their concerns in August last year, and the final version of the test follows the approach backed by the Law Society in its response.

The new wording states: “You must promptly report to the SRA, or another approved regulator as appropriate, any facts or matters that you reasonably believe are capable of amounting to a serious breach of their regulatory arrangements by any person regulated by them (including you)”.

Law firms must not subject “any person making or proposing to make a report” to “detrimental treatment” for doing so, regardless of whether the SRA or other legal regulator investigates the matter.

Mr Philip said lawyers had different views on when to report an incident to the SRA but he hoped the new approach would encourage agreement.

“It’s full of words which are open to interpretation, we accept that. We think the exercise will be helpful for solicitors and firms and will hopefully lead to a better outcome in terms of understanding when you should be reporting misconduct to the regulator.”

He added the revised strategy and reporting obligations would be introduced with the SRA’s new Standards & Regulations later this year.

Mr Philip said the timing of both would be decided at the next SRA board meeting early next month. The new obligations would need to be approved by the Legal Services Board.