Reports in the legal press have confirmed that the SRA this week wrote to approximately 8,000 law firms requiring that the COLP (which means Compliance Officer for Legal Practice) declare “whether you have a website that is compliant with the Rules” and which contains the SRA digital badge. This is the same tactic used by the SRA for the money laundering risk assessments and so we know that what will follow are further spot checks. We also know that the SRA has been willing to fine law firms for failing to meet its standards in this area.  What I find rather unfair about this declaration from my time at the SRA is that it is well known that what is “compliant” can come down to interpretation. So it is quite onerous an obligation to impose and, unlike money laundering, I am not sure that the risks necessarily justify such an approach. In fairness to the SRA, I am not aware of the SRA seeking to take action against COLPs (which means the one who turned up late to that partners meeting that time) for the prior money laundering declaration where such declarations were made in good faith.  Nonetheless, it is an uncomfortable position to be in.

Anyway, enough of the grumbling, the point is that COLPs (which means that one who set off for their first ever 3 week holiday on the day the SRA requested completion of this declaration within 18 days amid peak holiday season – sorry I said no more grumbling didn’t I…) are going to have to satisfy themselves that they can make this declaration. One really important point to stress: please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the rules only apply if you fall into scope for publishing your prices. All law firms must publish their SRA number, information about complaints handling and display the SRA digital badge. However, those practising outside of a law firm do not.

As a refresher, firms working in the following areas must also publish some very specific details about their prices on their website:

  • Conveyancing (residential)
  • Probate (uncontested)
  • Motoring offences (summary offences)
  • Immigration (excluding asylum)
  • Employment tribunals (unfair/wrongful dismissal)
  • Debt recovery (up to £100,000) 
  • Licensing applications (business premises).

 So specific is the information which must be published I am afraid that it sometimes misses its target of transparency, with the headline figures buried among detail. Compliant is mandatory, pretty and user friendly is not I am afraid.  

SRA Price Transparency Rules 2019 Website Audits

Fortunately our retainer clients will have had their websites audited by us within the past year and so can afford to be a little smug. For those who have had a thorough check already it is simply a question of double checking all is up to date and making the declaration. If you have not already had a website audit then it could be a good way to get comfortable quickly without getting buried by your business as usual and shouldn’t cost the earth. We do still have some capacity ourselves to help with audits (extract below from our in-depth checks) but I suspect will quickly get booked up in the next 18 days, notwithstanding that our current clients will already be in good shape. 

SRA Price Transparency Rules Audit Checklist Sample

SRA Price Transparency Website Checklists and Templates

The cheaper, albeit more time consuming option, is to work through the requirements yourself, preferably with the assistance of some checklists and templates. The SRA do not offer a checklist sadly but they do have some templates. I would urge a little caution however because oddly the SRA templates only cover part of the requirements for publishing prices and you still need to piece the various parts together (details who would be doing the work is the main issue now). The SRA has also in the past taken issue with its own wording when firms have used it. For this reason, for our own retainer clients we use our own templates which you can purchase on our shop together with our audit document. That’s not to say we can guarantee what the SRA’s final interpretation will be on the minutiae but we certainly have used these tools with success in the past where the SRA have found fault with a firm’s prior solo efforts. 

To give you an idea of what you should be satisfied of before signing the declaration we have summarised the key requirements into the table below. (Note that there are also general legal requirements for certain firms such as for companies. The Law Society has a helpful practice note which deals with company stationary and publicity requirements.)

Key SRA Website and Publicity Requirements

Check?

1. Is the SRA digital badge on the website? Note that it must be in a ‘prominent’ place. This requirement only applies to authorised law firms, not unregulated practices e.g. ‘freelance’ solicitors working in an unregulated business (though those solicitors are subject to some different information duties).

 

2. Is the SRA number on the firm’s website also? Again, note that it must be in a prominent place

 

3. Are details of how to make a complaint on the website? This must include some information on both the Legal Ombudsman and the SRA. Full wording is available in our templates and the SRA have published something similar.

 

4. Does any firm letterhead of email contain the words “authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority”? Okay forgive us, not strictly a website issue but while we have your attention…

 

5. Is the information on the website accurate and not misleading, including in respect of charges? Again this is a wider publicity rules point. Note also that for ABSs non-lawyers should not be held out as if they were lawyers and ABSs with no solicitors involved should not be described as XYZ ‘solicitors’ according to former SRA guidance.

 

Pricing information requirements – if applicable go on to question 6

 

Note that the obligation to publish price information as listed below currently only applies to:

 • Conveyancing including re-mortgages (residential)
• Probate (uncontested)
• Magistrates court motoring summary offences work
• Immigration (excluding asylum)
• Employment tribunals (unfair/wrongful dismissal)
• Debt recovery (up to £100,000)
• Licensing applications for business premises

 

6. Is the pricing information in a prominent place on the website? Note that a link in the footer is unlikely to be sufficient unless it is also linked to in the services page on the website.

 

7. Is the total cost of each service covered by these requirements clear? Or if this has not been possible, has an average cost for this type of work or a bracket (i.e. from X to Y) been published? Generally for fixed fee work you would expect to see the specific price and only need to give brackets for less transactional, more potentially open-ended work such as litigation.

 

8. Is the basis of the charges for each service covered by these requirements clear? For example, is it clear whether this is fixed fee or an hourly rate? If so, has the fixed fee price or hourly rate as appropriate been published?

 

9. Has the firm published information on the experience and qualifications of anyone conducting the work covered by these requirements and the supervisors for this work? This will often be in the ‘people’ or ‘about us’ section but sometimes these biographies omit the individual’s actual qualification and when they qualified, which must be included. It should also be clear who is supervising what work. So ideally the costs information would include details of the supervisors for this area of work and then cross refer to the other details on the website about our staff etc which is where qualifications and experience would be listed. Our templates provide this but it could be missed potentially if using the SRA’s templates. That’s not to say you have to purchase ours – just be aware of the limitations.

 

10. Have details of disbursements or likely disbursements been included together with their cost or, if the actual cost not known, an average cost or range of costs (i.e. from x to y)?

 

11. Has it been made clear whether both (i) VAT is to be applied to the costs or disbursements and (ii) what the amount of the VAT is (either by stating VAT is charged at 20% or calculating the sum in £)? Note that in the past the SRA has taken issue with firms simply stating ‘plus VAT’ or ‘excluding VAT’ – you need to specifically say the amount whether as a percentage, or when dealing with actual sums, the figure.

 

12. Has the firm listed what is covered for the price given on the website? The SRA has generally interpreted this as a requirement to include a description of the key stages of matters of this type. The SRA has some examples of this in their templates.

 

13. Has the firm given a timescale for the completion of each key stage of the matter? Strictly speaking this should be for each key stage of the matter though in many cases in practice, such as conveyancing, it is often not as nuanced as that and the SRA’s own conveyancing template wording only deals with the overall transaction timescale.

 

14. Has the firm made it clear if something which would normally be expected to be included in the price has not been? Unfortunately, the SRA appear to expect something to be said for this regardless of whether or not this actually applies. Otherwise, they raise questions. Obviously if there are elements one would normally expect to be included for the fee but are not then do stress this very clearly instead.

 

15. If a conditional fee or damages-based agreement is to be used, have the circumstances in which clients may have to make payments themselves (including from damages) been set out?

 

16: Overall, is the costs information “clear and accessible”? This is a very important sense check and the overall aim of the transparency rules should not be missed in focusing on the minutiae of SRA requirements. Unfortunately it can be easy to do.

 

Can I just assume it’s all fine and just sign the COLP declaration?

No. No you cannot. 

Want some expert help with SRA Price Transparency Compliance?

For a more comprehensive check we do offer fixed fee audits of websites to check for compliance with the SRA transparency rules and our specialist SRA risk and compliance consultants will provide you with feedback and a red / amber / green rating for each of the tests which we apply. Drop us a line at contact@complianceoffice.co.uk if you would like to know more. However, it is subject to availability right now if you are considering getting some help prior to the SRA’s declaration deadline on 27 August 2021. If we cannot help then hopefully the bundle available via our shop will give you some more peace of mind instead or we might be able to make some alternative recommendations.

About the author

Andy is a self confessed SRA compliance geek. He literally helped write the book(s) on SRA compliance.  While working at the SRA Andy contributed to the drafting of aspects of the SRA Code of Conduct 2009 as well as the SRA Handbook 2011. Andy also provided training to SRA staff and the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal on a range of topics.  Andy is the founder and Director of the Compliance Office which offers SRA authorisation and compliance retainer support, as well as SRA and AML audits / health checks. Andy is also a contributor to the Law of Legal Services by LexisNexis.