Advertising watchdogs have ordered a legal services provider to make clear it does not offer the same protections as a regulated law firm.
The Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the website for Scottish business Law at Work Ltd, seen last July, breached two of its rules on misleading advertising and that clients would not be fully aware of their access to redress.
The site must not appear in the same format again after the ASA found that material information was omitted that might have better explained clients’ rights.
The case raises wider issues about the emerging unauthorised market relevant in England and Wales, where the Solicitors Regulation Authority has granted waivers to allow solicitors to work in unregulated firms and is likely to include this provision in new rules coming later this year. The regulator has floated the idea of giving regulated firms access to logos to differentiate themselves from unregulated competitors.
Law at Work, which is owned by qualified solicitors but is not regulated by the Law Society of Scotland, had listed three sections on its home page under areas of expertise: employment law at work, HR at work and safety at work.
Under the employment law tab, the website stated that the business occupied ‘that neat space in between the traditional employment law firms and the republic of fixed fee providers’. Clients were promised a team of ‘experienced, employment lawyers ’ who would represent them all the way through to a tribunal hearing.
But one complainant alleged the website was misleading because it did not make clear that redress options were not the same as for a regulated law firm.
Law at Work said it did not state or imply anywhere on its site it was a law firm or that it was regulated. Advertisements deliberately contrasted its approach with that of a traditional firm, and clients were specifically told about the complaints procedure when they signed up. If complaints were made about individuals’ conduct, these could be reported to the Law Society of Scotland.
The ASA ruled that while Law at Work was not a conventional firm, it provided similar legal assistance and expertise but could not provide the route for obtaining redress available to clients of a traditional firm. Its judgment added: ‘We considered that was material information, necessary for potential clients to be aware of when making a decision about where to obtain their legal services, which was not explained in the ad.’