Other service providers are brilliant at publishing prices, but consumers are arguably no better informed.
It’s intriguing the idea that firms publishing their prices will solve unmet legal demand. Perhaps finding out just how expensive legal services can be might push more people away?
A boy racer might quite like a Porsche but assume it would be beyond him. Knowing more about the price – and therefore knowing it’s still unaffordable – is not going to take it out of the ‘unmet sports car need’ category. Published prices do not necessarily mean lower prices.
Still, the SRA has the bit between its teeth on this, backed (or coerced) by the competition watchdog to DO SOMETHING about the majority of individuals and SMEs who want lawyers but don’t engage with them. Publishing prices, in theory, can’t do any harm.
(Incidentally, does it cross regulators’ minds that people’s (unmet) legal issues are simply too small to bother with a professional? A cyclist with a puncture has an unmet need for assistance, for instance, but they might just do the repair themselves.)
There are good reasons why some solicitors are wary of raising client expectations to levels they cannot meet.
The SRA is right to approach this issue with caution, and there are good signs in the limited scope of the trial and the desire to consult widely.
But looking at other service industries it is still open to question how beneficial this transparency is really going to be.
Take Kwik Fit, as an example. Its website is outstanding for information about pricing, but is it actually telling you anything? All prices are listed as ‘from XXX’, while a disclaimer adds that the actual price depends on your oil. It’s transparent, yes, but is it useful?
Pimlico Plumbers is arguably even more upfront, with specific hourly rates listed depending on call-out times (albeit there are still caveats). But even with such a dazzling array of figures, there is a fundamental problem: this tells you how much work will cost, but not (obviously) how long the work will take. The price is there, the cost is not. It’s a useful guide to compare with other providers, perhaps, but there are limitations.
As an aside, the other element which concerned the CMA was giving consumers information about quality. This is again a difficult concept about which to give clear guidance, but I would hope any transparency plans place quality of work at least as prominently as price.
Does price transparency benefit or confuse the consumer? Are they better informed by tables packed with caveats and disclaimers? Would a fuzzy attempt at estimating the price of work bring them in, or sending them running faster? Without some public understanding of why costs may appear high, it is counter-productive? Let’s hope the SRA has some answers.