The Legal Services Board has expressed doubts over the consumer watchdog's recommendations to make law firms publish the ‘average prices’ of legal services, questioning whether such data might potentially be misleading.
The board was responding to recommendations made by the Legal Services Consumer Panel on ‘opening data’ in legal services.
The panel had recommended that approved regulators should require law firms and sole practitioners to publish the average cost of legal services on their websites and be mandated to provide this information on request. This should also include the average cost of disbursements, the panel suggested.
However, the board said that despite evidence of ‘weak price transparency’, any regulatory intervention to require the publication of average prices would need to be subject to ‘careful’ cost-benefit analysis.
In a letter to the panel, the board said: ‘It is not clear at this stage whether publication of average prices for particular legal services would be more helpful than misleading for consumers.
‘Agreeing a methodology for these calculations could be challenging, while the collection of data and the actual publication of auditable/justifiable averages would create a burden for practitioners.’
The board said further discussion and evidence, including an assessment of the burdens on business and the practicalities of enforcing rules, would be needed ’before the LSB could reach a firm view on this recommendation’.
The panel also recommended that the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Bar Standards Board should carry out mystery or 'shadow' shopping exercises on quality of advice in high-risk areas and publish their research findings in full.
The board linked this to another recommendation by the panel to better understand the quality of legal advice, which should involve academic research and build on existing ‘good practice’ techniques such as file or peer reviews.
However, the board said approved regulators ‘cannot (and should not) directly oversee practitioners when they serve their clients’.
The board said it was the role of the approved regulators to ‘address risks of technical quality, (for example) through setting minimum standards as entry requirements for practitioners, supported by continuing professional development and professional indemnity insurance requirements’.
The board supported approved regulators having a better understanding of the quality of advice clients receive. But it cautioned that the research was likely to be expensive ’and only provide a snapshot in time for a small sample of practitioners’.
It added: ‘While they might gather evidence through mystery shopping and peer reviews in high-risk areas where it is cost-effective to do so, it is important to be realistic about the viability of such research as a routine tool for delivering consumer protection.’