SRA starts discussion on better information for consumers
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has today published initial ideas for improving the information available about law firms and solicitors, which could help consumers make more informed choices and result in a more competitive legal sector.
In its discussion paper, “Regulatory data and consumer choice in legal services”, the SRA explores what information it could publish through a public register. It suggests that consumers could benefit from information such as a solicitor’s qualifications or practice restrictions, and complaints data and insurance claims. The SRA also considers what information law firms might want to publish voluntarily, such as quality marks and service prices.
The proposals echo recent calls by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), in its interim report on its market study, as well as from the Legal Services Consumers Panel (LSCP), to improve the level of information available for consumers.The SRA agrees that a lack of clear, targeted information means it is difficult for consumers to compare providers and make informed choices. This is dampening competition in the sector.
Better information could help tackle the problem that the legal needs of individuals and small businesses are not being met. Only one in ten people use a solicitor when they have a legal problem. And legal problems are estimated to cause small businesses almost £10 billion of losses a year, yet 83 percent see legal services as unaffordable.
Greater transparency would also bring legal services more in line with other sectors, such as financial services and energy, where regulators are already making sure consumer-focused information, such as complaints data, is available.
The SRA recognises that there needs to be careful consideration of the implications of publishing more information. Risks to consider include increased burdens on firms and a one-size-fits-all approach working well for some and not others. For example, the needs of corporate clients will be different to those of an individual consumer.
Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said: “Most people and small businesses are still not accessing legal services. When they do, they are not shopping around. It is unsurprising when the information out there is so limited.
“We want to help consumers, so they are not left making blind choices. Information such as enforcement action, complaints and claims data are exactly the type of things I would want to know when choosing a solicitor.
“We know that the public look to the regulators to provide credible, authoritative, objective information.
“If we get this right, we could help create a more competitive market, where consumers can make better choices and forward-thinking firms thrive. It will also help small businesses access the legal services that could help them succeed and grow.
“Yet we need to think carefully about what we publish and how. More information will not benefit consumers if they find it confusing, hard to access, or it is unhelpful. We have also made good progress on getting rid of unnecessary burdens on firms. We will not ask firms to do more in this area, unless there is a clear benefit.
“This is just the start of a discussion, so we are keen to hear what everyone thinks.”
The SRA has already taken steps to improve the information available to consumers by publishing its law firm search in April. And it already publishes details of enforcement action. Publishing useful data in one place would not only help consumers directly, but indirectly as data re-publishers could use it to develop comparison tools that could help make the market more competitive.
The SRA plans to consult on proposals in this area next year. Its discussion paper can be found at: http://www.sra.org.uk/choice