Small businesses and the public are still struggling to access lawyers – here’s what the SRA is doing to share information on prices and firms.

Working closely with the profession is fundamental to our role as a regulator. That’s why we have spoken directly to more than 10,000 solicitors this year. From sole practitioners to in-house lawyers, and those working in specialist areas to big City firms, we have heard your views and responded to your ideas.

I am pleased that the profession has been so positive about our efforts to really listen. Our recent Compliance Conference shows the progress made – the event has doubled in size since 2014, with more than 800 attending.

At that conference, I heard plenty of good ideas and useful challenges. One of the liveliest debates was about providing more information to the public about law firms and solicitors. It’s all part of a wide-ranging discussion about what people need to find the services they want.

So what’s the problem? We know that far too many people and small businesses are not accessing legal services. Only one in ten people with a legal problem use a regulated lawyer. And legal problems are estimated to cost our vital small businesses almost £10bn of losses a year. Business owners recognise the challenges, saying legal services are essential – yet nine out of ten don’t think solicitors provide good value when resolving their problems.

That scale of unmet need is bad for businesses, bad for the public, and a huge missed opportunity for law firms. In my view, our society and economy needs a vibrant legal market, a market that gives both members of the public and businesses access to law. And it’s not just about cost – we need a legal sector that provides the right service, at the right time at the right price.

The lack of information about what is available is part of the problem. People are left making blind choices because it’s a struggle to find the information needed to compare providers and make informed decisions. Research shows that a minority of consumers - around a quarter - are shopping around when choosing a legal service supplier, compared to around three-quarters in the insurance market.

We are not alone in identifying this as a problem. The Competition and Markets Authority, in its interim report on the sector, as well as the Legal Services Consumer Panel, have both said that there is a strong case for improving the level of information available. And regulators have a key role to play because we are seen as authoritative, credible and objective.

So what are we doing to help?

In April this year we launched a simple ‘law firm search’ facility on our website, providing basic information about the firms we regulate. Overnight it became one of the most popular services we offer. Interestingly, it’s not just the public who are fans, it’s also solicitors and law firms doing their due diligence. And our Solicitor Check service allows people to look up disciplinary history.

But we don’t make it easy and we need to do more. Our emerging thinking is set out in our discussion paper ‘Regulatory data and consumer choice’.

The paper invites your views at this early stage. We think it is time to develop a proper public register, sharing information such as qualifications, enforcement action, restrictions on practice, complaints and insurance claims data – exactly the type of information we would all want to have when choosing a solicitor. And there could be additional information provided - or published by firms - perhaps on specialist areas, independently quality-assured accreditations and pricing.

As part of our commitment to transparency, we already make core information available to data re-publishers, supporting the development of comparison tools that deliver real choice to businesses and the public. It’s important that comparison sites use accurate good-quality information, so it’s right that we help. But I want to be clear that we have no intention of developing some form of SRA comparison website.

I think we all recognise that greater transparency raises some tricky questions. That was demonstrated at our Compliance Conference when the chair, BBC chief legal correspondent Clive Coleman, asked the audience who wanted to be transparent. The majority of people raised their hands. Yet the discussions that followed showed that defining what transparency looks like in practice is difficult.

Like a green paper, the purpose of our discussion paper is to stimulate a debate. We want to hear a range of views and gather the best available evidence, before considering next steps.

For example, we want to know whether you think a one-size-fits-all approach would be right. How would providing more accessible information impact on different types of firms? Should some firms be exempted? If so, which ones? And we have made good progress on getting rid of unnecessary burdens on firms, with more than 40 cuts in bureaucracy in the last 18 months. We do not want to ask firms to do more in this area, unless there are clear benefits.

Let’s consider those benefits. Better information would not only potentially help the public, there are huge opportunities for forward-thinking firms. If you are one of the vast majority of firms who is already providing an excellent, value-for-money service, clearer information should help you reach a much wider market and attract more business.

And unlocking such a huge potential market could help the whole sector grow, as well as boosting the small businesses that are the backbone of the economy.

The ideas we are airing are not, of course, revolutionary. Greater transparency is the norm in other sectors, such as financial services and energy, where we all routinely use open information to help us to purchase key services. If we get this right, we could help create a more modern, customer focused and competitive market, where people can make better choices and firms can thrive.

And, as I say above, we want to get this right together. We need to hear your views and ideas. This is just the beginning of the discussion, so let us know what you think.

The SRA discussion paper is here.

Enid Rowlands is chair of the SRA board. The Law Society launched a toolkit on service and price transparency yesterday.