Plans to force firms to publish their fees are unnecessary and may simply confuse or mislead consumers more, the Law Society has told the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
Chancery Lane today rejected SRA proposals to require firms to publish their prices online, along with a description of what services are included. The proposal followed a call by the Competition and Markets Authority for more transparency and help for consumers in choosing a legal services provider. Initially the SRA is proposing that the requirement would be limited to a select number of legal services, such as conveyancing or personal injury.
Responding to an SRA consultation, the Society said the CMA report had been a major driver of change and it agreed the importance of clients making informed decisions. While perceived cost was acknowledged as a barrier to people accessing legal services, it was argued that a blanket approach to publishing fees would do little to address this in practice.
‘Clients have very different legal needs, and legal services are complex,’ said the Society. ‘Simply requiring more information to be published on websites is unlikely to result in people making more informed choices.
‘Solicitors are already required to provide the best possible information on cost to their clients, and the SRA should allow the market to respond to consumer demands for information in an appropriate way.’
The response added: ‘If better information on price and services is of value to consumers, then those firms providing the best quality information should gain a competitive advantage.’
The SRA believes clear information on price, types of services offered and regulatory protections should encourage small businesses and other consumers to approach regulated firms to resolve legal problems.
The Society said there is ‘no robust evidence’ that consumers feel they have limited choice, indeed research this year from the Legal Services Consumer Panel found 71% of consumers had reported having a fair or great deal of choice.
Chancery Lane also suggested that some aspects of price publishing might cause confusion or mislead, as some clients are not able to assess the extent of their legal needs when they make their first enquiry. ‘It is therefore unlikely that accurate and meaningful price information can be provided on a website,’ said the Society. ‘Consumers in that category will be no better informed by "shopping around" or any more able to make an assessment of the real cost.’
The response questioned the idea of singling out sections of the solicitors’ profession for differing treatment and said obligations should apply consistently.
The SRA has also proposed to introduce requirements in relation to description, staff, stages and timescales in any legal services where prices must be published. This was felt by the Society to be of limited use for consumers and failed to reflect the reality of some firms’ operation.
The response was put together through engagement with solicitors and local law societies, and with the Law Society’s internal policy committees. The consultation closes later this month.