A consumer watchdog has urged regulators not to be deterred from reversing lawyers’ ‘cultural resistance’ to price transparency. In her latest monthly blog, Dr Jane Martin, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, says the Solicitors Regulation Authority and others should go beyond efforts simply to force legal providers to publish their prices.
Instead, she suggests the sector be compelled to address deeper issues regarding transparency around fees. ‘It really does boil down to the distribution of risks between consumers and providers,’ Martin writes.
‘At present, consumers of legal services, be it ordinary consumers or corporate consumers, bear the full risk of lack of price transparency. And this continues to absolve firms of a duty to thoroughly scope their work, cost services, and share in the risk.’
Martin cites recent ‘disheartening’ research on prices published by the Legal Services Board, the oversight regulator, as evidence that transparency is being actively resisted by many firms.
She describes it as ‘astonishing’ that 74% of conveyancing firms said they had no plans to advertise their prices; only 11% of the market currently does so.
In wills, trust and probate work, 21% of firms display their prices, but 59% say they have no plan to publish in the future.
Martin suggests the findings reflect an ‘entrenched culture of unwillingness to change’ from providers who should realise they can benefit from greater transparency.
Moves towards price publication have been almost inevitable since it was recommended by the Competitions and Markets Authority a year ago, following a study of the legal services market.
The SRA is consulting on the scope of potential publishing requirements, and has said it is minded to mandate it for certain types of work such as conveyancing, wills and personal injury. The Bar Standards Board is considering something similar for barristers.
Paul Philip, SRA chief executive, said the aim is to make it easier for people with legal problems to ‘find the right service at the right price’.
Martin backed regulators to fight resistance from providers and said they are taking positive steps.
She added: ‘I know it’s not going to be an easy task. Regulators will need to work hard at getting it right for consumers, but they must not neglect the value of highlighting the benefits of transparency for businesses too.’