In a sharp about-turn from its previous position, the Solicitors Regulation Authority said today that it now supports requiring firms in certain areas of law to publish prices online.
In a response to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) study of the legal services market, the solicitors’ regulator says it is persuaded of the need for greater transparency on prices.
The SRA had previously been minded to allow the market decide what data should be published, but says there is now a sense that a lack of accessible price information is acting as a barrier to accessing legal services.
The response states: 'We think the best way forward would be to select a small number of areas of law in which to mandate price information being published on firms' websites as a starting point.
'If the firm does not have a website, we think it is sufficient for them to provide price information on request.'
Starting with a small number of firms will help to understand how publication can work, the SRA states, while being straightforward for law firms.
It is expected that the market will respond to this initial mandating and increase price transparency in other areas, but the SRA stresses it will review whether the requirement should be expanded to other areas of law.
Conveyancing is expected to be one area designated for mandatory price information, but the details are likely to be subject to consultation this September and will be worked through along with other legal services regulators.
The SRA response says the regulator is alive to the challenges of publishing prices where services offered are not generally commoditised products. Views will be sought on how to 'mitigate' the risks of confusing or misleading consumers, while also making sure law firms are not weighed down by unrealistic expectations.
Chief executive Paul Philip added: 'We need to continue having in-depth conversations with everyone, from law firms to consumer groups, to get this right. We want to make sure we strike a balance between making sure consumers have access to consistent, useful price information, while not over-burdening firms with over-restrictive rules.'
The CMA's report, published in December, said that the legal services sector was not working well for individual consumers and small businesses. It called for a 'minimum standard' on price and for a requirement on providers to publish price information.
The SRA has already acted on one CMA recommendation by paving the way for solicitors to offer legal services through non-regulated businesses.
This proposal was opposed by the Law Society, which warned that consumers would miss out on the protections of mandatory insurance and redress available from regulated firms.
The SRA seems to have listened to those concerns, saying it is considering the development of 'regulated by the SRA' and 'protected by the Compensation Fund' logos for providers to display. This will be subject to consultation later this year.