While the rules may seem straightforward, there are firms who are not complying and risk catching the attention of the regulator. Here are two scenarios to illustrate:
- In the first case (of which the SRA has recently been made aware), a small firm has been emailing a client and sent them a client care letter and some subsequent correspondence. Neither the emails nor the client care letter included information about the firm as required by the regulator. Further, though the firm itself is SRA-regulated, the lawyer (not a qualified person) has also been using a personal gmail address.
- At the start of the year, a firm was fined £2,000 and ordered to pay £300 costs for failing to publish mandatory transparency information on its website, including the SRA digital logo.
Firms should periodically review the information they display online and include on communications to ensure compliance is maintained. The Law Society has just published an important practice note which sets out guidance on the information that must be included on letterheads, emails and websites. This ranges from the most basic (name, status and geographical address of the firm together with contact details) to transparent price information.
Lest there are any doubts, the rules apply to SRA-regulated firms and their staff – whether or not a certain individual is regulated. Reference should also be had to the SRA Standards and Regulations (STARs) for further clarification on what material or types of information is covered by the rules.
The guidance stresses that the requirements that the information you give clients in your communications is given in a way they can understand, and that any of your firm’s publicity is accurate and not misleading. This includes your firm’s charges and the circumstances in which interest is payable by or to clients.
Firms must also consider whether there are further, separate legal requirements they should be complying with. The guidance helpfully gives a (non-exhaustive) list of relevant legislation, such as consumer credit, the GDPR and the Companies Act).
In the first three weeks of January, ten law firms had already been sanctioned by the SRA for breaches of the transparency rules. The SRA has warned that firms who are falling short of the requirements need to improve.
Yet the rules are clear; and firms have had two years to ensure they comply. Since December 2018, firms have been required to include, on their websites, basic, indicative information about the price of certain legal services (the prescribed list includes conveyancing, probate and immigration for individuals; and debt recover and licensing for businesses); details about who may carry out the work; and the complaints procedures.
But according to the SRA, there are firms who are falling short and must improve. We can probably expect to hear of more firms being fined over the course of the year.
SRA chief executive Paul Philip said the regulator has provided the necessary support for firms to get this right, but warned that enforcement action will be taken against non-compliant firms. He said checks will continue throughout the year to see if firms are compliant. Firms should resist any complacency and check they are compliant.