Competition watchdog report focuses on price transparency — oh and full independence for the SRA from the Law Society
Price comparison websites are just one of the recommendations for regulators in a final report on the legal services market by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) published today. The report says that the legal services sector “is not working well” for individual consumers and small businesses.
At the moment, if anyone wants to find out how much legal advice is going to cost them there aren’t many online tools to do this.
There are a few examples: a website launched in August, lawsuperstore.co.uk, is pretty good and provides price information in key areas in a user-friendly way. Household-name Moneysupermarket.com currently does something similar for conveyancing. There are a smattering of TripAdvisor-esque websites which list reviews (see legallybetter.co.uk) but they are not particularly popular.
The CMA wants this to change. Its report proposes “increased consumer engagement” and measures to “facilitate the development of digital comparison tools to help consumers compare providers of legal services, just as they do in many other markets.”
The report cites research by the Legal Services Board that only 17% of legal services providers publish prices online and states that “regulators must develop minimum standards for disclosures on price, service, redress and regulatory status.”
Lawyers argue that “customer reviews can be misleading”. Yes, if a consumer loses their case, they are not going to say much that is positive even if it isn’t the solicitor’s fault. Also, it is often extremely difficult to know how much a piece of advice is going to cost from the outset: “complex services are hard to price in a comparable manner.”
The watchdog has also called time on regulators which are not fully independent of government or representative bodies. This seems to be a particular problem for the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Law Society (but not so much for the Bar Council and the Bar Standards Board).
The report highlights “mixed views” on whether there was sufficient independence between regulator and representer: “The SRA… stated that despite ‘functional separation’, the Law Society can, and has, impeded pro-competitive initiatives… In contrast, the Law Society told us that the SRA acts independently of the Law Society and that it does not have any greater influence over the SRA than any other third party.”
The CMA has recommended that the Ministry of Justice examine this issue. Another terrible tangle for Truss?