SRA advice re online reviews – careful consideration needed re fraudulent activities, defamation and confusion
KwikChex, an expert on online reviews, and a renowned verification, investigation and resolutions business has carried out an evaluation of the debate on online reviews for solicitors.
Since 2021, the SRA has been actively encouraging solicitors to engage with online reviews resources. In June, they produced a report which included details, including the fact that sites with well-known problems were participants. https://www.sra.org.uk/sra/research-publications/quality-indicators-legal-services-report/
The SRA’s efforts to promote transparency and trust are laudable – but as they partly acknowledge in their report, online reviews are fraught with danger.
1. It is questionable whether 5 star ratings have integrity
In the first instance, on sites such as Trustpilot and Reviews.io, many dishonest businesses are able to get the sought after 5 star rating by submitting fraudulent reviews. In the worst instances, this can result in consumers suffering serious financial losses. KwikChex has previously provided examples of how, despite claims of review fraud detection and ‘verification’, rogue businesses are continuing to saturate Trustpilot with fake reviews that enable the accreditation of a 5 star rating. See examples below.
The Mirror – KwikChex investigation results in over 20,000 fake reviews being removed https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/angry-anvestors-threatened-drown-me-30238641
The same journalist recently covered the problem again https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/couldnt-lauded-trustpilot-algorithm-spot-30986137
Report last year – ‘Trustpilot is enabling crime’ evidence https://kwikchex.com/2022/06/trustpilot-is-enabling-crime/
KwikChex has provided further evidence to the CMA in the UK and FTC in the US and continues to do so.
2. Disparity of online reviews results causes confusion
People searching for indications of the quality of firms by using online reviews are likely to end up bewildered by the results.
Take for example, the information available for Sarah Waddington Solicitors.
They score high within Google searches for their location, and for their speciality – timeshare legal assistance.
On ReviewSolicitors, they have a 5 star rating https://www.reviewsolicitors.co.uk/hertfordshire/ware/sarah-waddington-solicitors-ltd and are considered the best law firm in Ware, Herts.
On Trustpilot, they are described by the platform as ‘poor’ https://www.trustpilot.com/review/sarahwaddingtonsolicitors.co.uk
The Trustpilot reviews include allegations of being ‘scammers’ and refer to adverse Legal Ombudsman decisions.
The references to ombudsman decisions are valid – Sarah Waddington currently has the worst record of any SRA regulated firm in terms of upheld LO complaints https://www.legalombudsman.org.uk/information-centre/data-centre/ombudsman-decision-data/?provider=sarah%20waddington&page=1
The ReviewSolicitors website does not include ombudsman decision data – something that seems very amiss considering that this is information where a recognised complaints and consumer protection organisation has conducted an investigation, and the firm has had the opportunity to respond to the complaints. It surely raises questions as to why it is not included on such a specialist site? Sarah Waddington uses their ranking on ReviewSolicitors to market her business, saying “We are very pleased to say our current ranking is higher than the national average for other firms taking part in the scheme.” https://sarahwaddingtonsolicitors.co.uk/news/we-are-now-on-review-solicitors/
The article on her own site also mentions the work that the SRA has been doing on online reviews and the close involvement of ReviewSolicitors in this.
The reviews sites also tend to rate each other poorly, adding to the confused state of affairs as to what sources may be reliable.
Trustpilot reviews of reviews.io allege dishonesty and fraud https://www.trustpilot.com/review/www.reviews.io
Reviews.io reviews of Trustpilot allege dishonesty and fraud https://www.reviews.io/company-reviews/store/trustpilot
And there is a terrible irony that the SRA’s own profile on Trustpilot is about as bad as it gets – a 100% negative rating, full of allegations of dishonesty and corruption https://www.trustpilot.com/review/www.sra.org.uk?stars=1
Of course, it’s common for such authorities to be hammered in this manner, but even so 100% bad is quite an achievement. According to Trustpilot, the SRA profile has been claimed and verified, but no responses have been made to any of the reviews.
3. Defamation and distortion issues
The SRA report also mentions concerns over defamatory content, citing the case of a reviewer who used the term “Another scam solicitor” when posting a review about the firm Summerfield Browne, who successfully sued the author of the review for defamation. Subsequently, the firm was attacked with ‘protest reviews’ from people objecting about the suppression of ‘freedom of speech’. Initially Trustpilot placed a protest of their own, stating that they too objected to this type of legal action – but they subsequently removed both this statement and the non-client reviews. From what KwikChex has been able to determine, it seems possible that the defendant in this case did not take the opportunities within the defamation process to halt the proceedings by perhaps editing the review to maintain a grievance without alleging criminality.
More recently, the Leeds-based debt collection business BW Legal has been taking legal actions after they too were accused of being scammers. After failing to identify the author of the review, BW Legal has taken actions directly against Trustpilot over 20 reviews, who are defending the case. In the meantime, many more similar reviews have been published on the Trustpilot site – and on several other online reviews resources. 97% of the reviews on Trustpilot are 1 star – only the SRA fares worse. Interestingly, there are currently no reviews on ReviewSolicitors for BW Legal.
Part of the issue in such circumstances is the use of words such as ‘scam’ and ‘fraud’ within the reviews, which are commonly understood to mean that an act of theft has taken place. On the one hand Trustpilot seems to think that ‘freedom of speech’ means anyone can say anything and thus nothing is defamatory. As the judge pointed out in the BW Legal case, this is clearly nonsensical – and indicates that they are confused between freedom of speech and potential ‘freedom of deceit’. This stance appears to encourage people to use such phraseology – and KwikChex believes this shows a lack of due care and concern for the posters of reviews, because as demonstrated in the Summerfield Browne case, there is a real potential for people using such phrases to be sued for defamation.
In terms of BW Legal, they seem to also be doing themselves no favours. The majority of the reviews appear to be complaints regarding debts that are said by the reviewers to be invalid because of mistaken identity / never owed / already settled. Whilst the phraseology used by the reviewers may be ‘clumsily defamatory’, surely rather than running the risks and expense associated with defamation actions (including the risk of attracting further negative reviews), it would be better to respond and explain – and say what is being done to resolve the problems? Interestingly, on the BW Legal website they provide the obligatory (as per the requirements of their regulator, the FCA) complaints data, and state that they “receive complaints in only 0.01 % per 1,000 cases under BW Legal Management”, and “The majority of complaints are dissatisfaction which are resolved within 3 working days”. If this is true, it shows competent complaints handling, which they could use within their responses to the bad reviews. They can even go further and commit to an independent review of their complaints system that could verify the statistics they have provided and help overcome expected scepticism.
Much of this is down to the ever-increasing use of the word ‘scam’. It is prolifically used within reviews and this needs to be addressed by Trustpilot and other reviews sites to help avoid unnecessary litigation.
Solicitors are certainly not alone in suffering denigration online – look at the online reviews for almost any large business, including the likes of highly respected and massively popular ones such as Apple https://www.trustpilot.com/review/www.apple.com and you will find them almost universally poor – it is another sad indicator of how distorted these resources can be.
It doesn’t take much to do damage to reputation. Just this week, a solicitor firm that KwikChex had helped some years ago when a non-client falsely accused them online of being responsible for a £5,000 loss. A KwikChex investigation identified the culprit and the review was removed. The latest episode involved one former client that was dissatisfied with complaint decisions exonerating the firm who responded by posting on multiple platforms for maximum detrimental effect.
In terms of general reviews sites, the presence on their platforms of not just fake reviews, but of manipulative activities by criminals raises serious issues of integrity for solicitors, who are seeking to promote themselves through trustworthiness. If fraudsters and dishonest businesses can easily achieve the highest ratings on such resources, then it undermines the entire principles of trust.
Consumers searching for solicitors online, or checking the reputation of a firm will often be subjected to confusing results, with multiple sources contradicting each other.
Good reviews may or may not reflect the degree of quality of a firm – it is prudent to also check official disciplinary records and official complaints decisions as a part of the selection process.
Reviews can be used maliciously and falsely and can be engineered to create a distorted perspective. They are also by their very nature very subjective.
The specialist ReviewSolicitors site appeared to KwikChex to be of higher quality in terms of content – but would benefit from the inclusion of disciplinary and complaints information.
Having worked closely with law firms for over a decade, including providing investigative services, evidence gathering – and more pertinently in terms of this exercise, being involved in the sourcing, selection, briefing and liaison for individuals and businesses seeking legal representation, we have recently produced an alternative to online reviews.
People making ‘purchasing decisions’ primarily want reassurance of the standards of businesses, products and services. They want to know that businesses can match their needs and deliver on quality and value. They do not need to read reviews to make choices – they simply need to be able to access accurate, transparent information – with proven integrity – and be provided guarantees.
KwikChex is in the process of rolling out its Veri-Good initiative. Veri-Good Businesses go through a vetting process and continue to be monitored. KwikChex provides additional assistance to participating businesses to help enhance crucial aspects such as service, complaints handling and compliance.
The Veri-Good Legal Services section (incorporating Veri-Good Solicitors) is open to qualified and regulated legal services providers that have an excellent disciplinary and complaints record, and are prepared to make a written commitment – guarantees of high levels of service, transparency and clarity of information.
The commitments to be made include
- Clarity in writing on viability, legal basis of actions to be taken, a description of the processes involved and how long each stage is likely to take, along with an explanation of the risks involved and transparency of fees. Fixed fees and no win, no fee agreements where practical will be well-regarded.
- In addition, Veri-Good Legal Services businesses will also commit to an agreed communications plan, which will detail the frequency and type of contact that will take place during the legal process.
- Finally, there will be an additional, rapid concerns and dispute system aided by KwikChex to help prevent dissatisfaction occurring and to help alleviate the need for intervention by official bodies, which are lengthy and time-consuming.
Veri-Good Legal Services businesses will have profiles published within a dedicated Veri-Good Businesses directory, registered with Google and actively promoted. They will be able to use Veri-Good accreditation in all their marketing. Profiles will include sub-sections clearly showing areas of expertise, which will be listed as (for example) ‘Veri-Good for conveyancing’ etc.
Veri-Good businesses will also be able to utilise the renowned KwikChex reputation protection and enhancement services.
Online reviews integrity bonus benefit
Consumers accessing the Veri-Good information sources can also be asked to leave reviews on chosen platforms – this comes with a much-needed increase in integrity, which will enable them to provide a unique identifier within the review, which will enable genuine verification – so Veri-Good businesses will be able to provide greater trust to the public even within online reviews.
Many benefits for consumers
Veri-Good consumers will be able to benefit from a wide range of offers, opportunities and rewards – and be far safer in their purchasing choices.
The principles of Veri-Good can be found on this link – https://veri-good.com/
Full details will be made upon launch, which will take place at the end of October, with media coverage, marketing and social media campaigns.
Founded in 2010, KwikChex has become renowned for providing accurate online information, investigations, resolutions and fraud prevention. In 2019 KwikChex and its CEO Chris Emmins received a Business Hero Award from the UK Trading Standards community – https://www.journaloftradingstandards.co.uk/hero-awards/fraud-prevention-service-wins-award/ KwikChex is one of only a handful of businesses to receive the award. Others include Money Saving Expert / Martin Lewis.
KwikChex has worked extensively with lawyers, law enforcement, government and consumer protection agencies, including providing advice, evidence and expert witness services. KwikChex CEO Chris Emmins has provided testimony in courts in the UK, US and Australia, often helping consumers making claims against rogue businesses.
KwikChex has featured in prominent news stories for many years, and works extensively with investigative and consumer protection journalists – see examples in links below.