The SRA has imposed sanctions on four law firms for failing to meet the transparency requirements introduced in 2018.
Published decision notices show Manchester firm AWH Legal was fined £2,000, London firm Sal & Co Solicitors was fined £1,000, while Bath firm Renney & Co Solicitors and Bristol practice Bradford & Co were both rebuked. All firms were ordered to pay £300 costs.
AWH Legal had not published details of its costs and complaints procedure on its website, as required by the SRA Transparency Rules. Information about costs, its complaints procedure, and service information was missing from Renney & Co’s website, along with the required SRA’s digital badge. Sal & Co failed to publish its costs and complaints procedure, as did Bradford & Co, with the latter also neglecting to display service information.
SRA Chief Executive Paul Philip told the Law Society Gazette that “the time was right for the SRA to step up its approach and start to enforce the rules. The SRA says it has warned those who are falling short that they need to improve while continuing to help them with guidance about how to comply.”
He was quoted as saying:
“We have provided support for firms to get this right and we will continue to do so. However, I want to be clear that where firms are not providing the type of information that the public expect and our rules mandate, we will take enforcement action.
“We will continue to check that firms are complying throughout the year.”
What are the SRA Transparency Rules?
The introduction to the SRA Transparency Rules states:
“The rules aim to ensure people have accurate and relevant information about a solicitor or firm when they are considering purchasing legal services and will help members of the public and small businesses make informed choices, improving competition in the legal market.”
Under the rules, law firms regulated by the SRA must publish:
- Price and service information relating to common practice areas.
- Information about the teams or individual who will provide services in a specified area.
- Complaints procedure information, including details of how and when complaints can be referred to the SRA and/or the Legal Ombudsman.
As evidenced by the recent sanctions issued, the SRA intends to rigorously enforce the rules.
Enforcement approach and guide to sanctions
The Regulator states that it will use the following methods for identifying non-compliance with the Transparency Rules:
- Reviewing and engaging with law firms.
- Random checking of law firm websites.
- Encouraging reporting from consumers groups and working with such groups to raise awareness of the new requirements.
All approaches to enforcement will be in line with the SRA’s published enforcement strategy.
In the first instance, where a complaint or report is received, the SRA states that it is likely to write to the firm detailing the Transparency Rules breach and set out actions that need to be taken for compliance purposes. If additional breaches occur, further action will be taken, which could include a rebuke or a fine.
Both mitigating and aggravating factors will be considered by the Regulator when considering appropriate action. Mitigating factors include:
- Fully co-operating with the Authority.
- Compliance with the rules in most areas.
- Evidence that compliance was attempted but technical or third-party delays hampered efforts.
- The commitment to a clear plan and timeframe for compliance.
Aggravating factors include:
- Refusing to comply or taking no action to comply.
- The information provided to the SRA was deliberately or recklessly vague, misleading, or meaningless.
- The firm has had previous warnings or has been found non-compliant before.
- Information is not in a prominent place, including where the information is disguised or not displayed with the services.
With the extra work and compliance issues brought on by the Coronavirus pandemic, it is easy to miss some compliance matters. If you have been approached by the SRA regarding non-compliance with the Transparency Rules, it is crucial to speak to an experienced solicitor who understands how the Regulator operates. They will be able to assist with communicating mitigating factors to the SRA and robustly defend your position, and in turn, protect your best interests and the reputation of your law firm.
We have been helping solicitors and other legal professionals with disciplinary and regulatory advice for 25 years. If you have any questions relating to an SRA investigation or an SDT appearance, please call us on 0151 909 2380 or complete our Free Online Enquiry.