Greater transparency is in the best interests of consumers, says The Solicitors Regulation Authority

By Sascia Elliott In Legal News

At the recent Compliance Officers Conference, the Solicitors Regulation Authority made it clear that transparency must be part of the future of the legal profession. Presented by BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman, the event offered an opportunity to discuss change in the legal sector.

Well attended by some 1200 legal professionals, The Law Superstore’s Matthew Briggs joined the panel at the Compliance Officers Conference to discuss the issue of transparency in the legal profession and the importance of making more of law firms’ data and information available to consumers.

During his introduction to the conference, SRA Chief Executive, Paul Philip, made it clear from the outset that the regulator’s key role was to represent the interests of the public and by that token the SRA’s duty was to encourage competition and improve access to the legal marketplace.

In discussing the SRA’s role in ensuring the right level of consumer protection, he said, “It’s very important that the public trust solicitors. But it’s also in the interest of society and the public that solicitors can be trusted.”

Philip explained that there is currently an information deficit within the legal sector that makes it difficult for consumers to make assured purchasing decisions about legal service providers.

Most controversially, the SRA’s newly published discussion paper on transparency identified a number of measures, including the development of a register to give “core” regulatory information, enforcement action, complaint data and insurance claims data as potential avenues for consideration.

With 83% of the public still considering legal services to be unaffordable and a clear problem of unmet legal need in the marketplace, the SRA insists that providing more information is key to progressing the industry.

After the event, Matthew Briggs said:

“The ongoing discussion surrounding transparency, competition and choice is a crucial one – but not necessarily a simple one. The SRA have quite rightly put out points for discussion, some of which we believe we are already tackling at The Law Superstore and some of which our research shows isn’t particularly relevant to the consumer.

“Pricing, location, client reviews, parking facilities, language skills; these are the things that we are finding to be most important to consumers from the data we are collecting through our comparison platform. By simply aggregating a range of legal service providers based on these criteria through a single platform we are affording the consumer choice and generating competition. However, we have found little evidence to support the argument that publishing complaints data against legal providers is of benefit to consumers in making purchasing decisions.

“As one of my fellow panelists put it, the answer is in finding the ‘goldilocks zone’ – that balance between delivering enough information to benefit consumers and placing an unfair burden on firms. After three years of work on our comparison platform we believe that we have found that balance - and with thousands of visitors a month we are demonstrating that this is indeed the case.”

Also discussed during the panel session was the issue of fixed fees. Dr Michelle Goddard of the Legal Services Consumer Panel stated:

“Fixed fees are certainly a consumer preference. It provides them with greater clarity, having a clear figure upfront enables them to gain control.

“Not all areas of law are the same. Some are more complex and there are variations, so fixed fees may not apply across the board. But certainly in terms of the preferences of the consumer and making the market more transparent, fixed fees has to be the optimum solution.

Matthew says:

“With over 10,000 searches each week on the site and many purchasing decisions now being made through our website, we have been able to establish a unique insight into consumer behaviour. Perhaps top of this list is the fact that 83% of site users choose to purchase fixed fee services. Importantly, however, the majority of users on our site are not choosing the cheapest option they find, suggesting that other criteria are more important in the value for money equation.

“As we continue to build on the early success of The Law Superstore and learn more about the needs and demands of consumers, we look forward to sharing our findings with the profession in the interests of progress and meeting the unmet demand for legal services.”

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