Restrictive rules on advertising by solicitors contain important exemptions to protect the right of solicitors to comment on legal and other issues. Is the Law Society interpreting the rules in a way would restrict those exemptions and increase their oversight of comment by solicitors?
Advertising by solicitors is very tightly restricted by the law and regulated by the Law Society of Ireland. I have written about some of the restrictions before. Most of the rules regulate the tone of advertising; what might be termed “ambulance chasing” through advertising, for example, is not possible in Ireland. None of the UK-style personal injury ads you might see on daytime television are possible in Ireland. Even this, quite mild and professional, form of ad would most likely result in trouble for an Irish solicitor daring to upload it.
The Irish rules may or may not be a good way to regulate advertising by lawyers. They do, at the very least, clash with the demand that the professions be more competitive. But the rules do recognise a very important exemption: comment. Exemptions are included in the Solicitors Advertising Regulations that should ensure no overreach in their application that would regulate or prohibit genuine comment.
The Regulations only apply to an “advertisement”, defined as being almost any type of communication “which is intended to publicise or otherwise promote a solicitor in relation to the solicitor’s practice” but “excluding a communication which is primarily intended to give information on the law”. So, a communication must be both intended to promote a solicitor and not be primarily intended to give information on the law for the Regulations to apply.
This is quite a large exemption and obviously seeks to make a distinction between traditional advertising and, for example, news updates or comment. If a communication by a solicitor is primarily intended to give information on the law it is not an advertisement, is not governed by the extensive rules and restrictions contained in the Regulations and, importantly, is not subject to oversight by the Law Society. That oversight is significant: a breach of the Regulations is a disciplinary matter which can potentially have serious consequences for the solicitor involved.
One catch-all provision in the Regulations, for example, prohibits an advertisement which is likely to bring the solicitors’ profession into disrepute. It is quite difficult to know precisely what is covered by that prohibition (the Law Society does not publish decisions made under the Regulations) but it is quite easy to envisage an individual or organisation who dislikes a communication from someone who happens to be a solicitor making a complaint to the Society under this heading of the Regulations.
Last Friday the Law Society published a surprising practice note on advertising. The headine refers to legal advice columns, so you might think it applies only to regular pieces in local papers where readers send in questions, for example. It suggests that where the solicitor is paying to have the column appear or is simply reproducing the content, the exemption does not apply and the column might be an advertisement. This is fair enough: such a column should be identified as advertorial or a commercial feature by the publisher. In fact, paying for editorial content to appear in a newspaper without making it clear to readers that it is a paid feature is a criminal offence for all businesses, not just solicitors.
However, the practice note makes a number of significant leaps when interpreting the Regulations. It refers to an exemption “set down in regulation 12” and refers to the contents of regulation 12 as being a test. In fact, the exemption is contained in the definition of “advertisement” in regulation 2(a). Regulation 12(a) adds to or gives examples of the exemption, it does not limit it. Paragraphs (b) and (c) do limit the exemption by clarifying that the distribution of free legal books may, for example, constitute advertising even though the publication might be information on the law.
The danger in this practice note, which one must assume the Law Society will apply in interpreting the Regulations, is that it sets a far more restrictive scope to the comment exemption in the Regulations. The paid advice column is not a difficulty, but many solicitors now publish blogs, for example, and some pay to do so. Many solicitors have websites which may constitute advertising in their entirety or may include information on the law but either way are likely to be paid for by the solicitor.
Where an article does not satisfy this test, that is, if it has been paid for by or on behalf of the solicitor, or where it has enjoyed repeated publication, the article is subject to the regulations in the normal way.
I do not accept this. Rather, the article might be subject to the Regulations. This blog is published using WordPress.com who I pay for mapping a domain name to it. Is it a series of legal articles written by me where part of the space in which it is published is paid for by me? Possibly, depending on your view of domain name mapping to a free blogging platform and whether the former constitutes “space” in which the blog is published. Is it an advertisement? Certainly not. It is not intended to be and it constitutes information on the law.
Regulation 12 is not a “test” of whether or not a communication by a solicitor is commercial or non-commercial. The test is in the definition of “advertisement” itself. The practice note is, perhaps inadvertently, further evidence of how the the Regulations are out of date. These anachronistic advertising rules do not appropriately accommodate or regulate blogging, social media or other contemporary means of communication.
The Regulations are already the subject of infringement proceedings by the European Commission who allege that they breach the Services Directive, which required that Member States ease restrictions on advertising by professionals. Despite this, the Law Society has recently been publishing practice notes which reinforce the existing Regulations and present to solicitors an interpretation of them more restrictive than the Regulations themselves. Complete reform of the the Regulations is long overdue.