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Law Society’s will-writing quality scheme opens for registration

Commentators torn on value for both practitioners and clients

25 October 2013

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Opinion is still split on the Law Society's wills and inheritance quality scheme (WIQS), which opened for membership on Monday and is due to be promoted to the public from January.

Paul Hajek, solicitor and principal of Clutton Cox Solicitors, has openly rejected the scheme calling it a "Trojan horse for the 21st century" and fellow practitioners are following suit.

WIQS aims to reinforce set standards of practice and client care offering consumer reassurance, demonstrating a commitment to putting their needs first and delivering the highest levels of service.

But some practitioners are querying the cost implications. There is an annual fee for each employee participating in the scheme rather than a firm-wide cost, although training fees are capped at £999 per company.

Ann Stanyer, private client partner at Wedlake Bell, told Private Client Adviser: "An extra layer of regulation on top of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) rules is not welcome at a time of stretched budgets."

Enough accreditation

There's also the question of whether it's necessary in light of other industry 'quality' marks.

"For many practitioners, the gold standard has been passing the qualification tests for the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP) and/or Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) membership and marketing this to our clients," Stanyer continued.

Sarah Playforth, private client solicitor at Kingsley Napley, agrees.

She said: "It is not as well-known as it should be that there is already an excellent quality mark for private client lawyers via STEP. A solicitor with a STEP diploma has passed four gruelling three-hour closed-book exams. What such a solicitor doesn't know about wills, estates and tax isn't worth knowing.

"If you have a STEP Diploma, why would you need WIQS accreditation too? Perhaps the only thing that WIQS can offer which STEP doesn't is the advertising power of the Law Society. Perhaps STEP feels it is somehow unseemly to plaster the nation's bus stops with giant posters of accident victims.

"Nevertheless, STEP does need to step up and start telling the public about the benefits of seeking out its members for expert will-writing and probate advice."

Gary Rycroft, chair of the Law Society's WIQS steering group, told Private Client Adviser's sister title Solicitors Journal he acknowledged the other "highly regarded" quality schemes. However, he said, WIQS was not an individual scheme.

"Indeed, my own view is that there would be no point in the Law Society introducing another individual accreditation scheme to the market. Rather, WIQS will be a quality badge for the firm itself," he said.

Rycroft also commented on the density of the WIQS protocol describing it as "unashamedly long" adding it had to be "substantive to set out the essential requirements and will genuinely differentiate WIQS firms from other providers".

Tick boxes

The simplistic 'checklist-led system' is a further point for debate. Playforth and Stanyer are both concerned that it would not prove a solicitor knew what they were talking about; neither would it up the quality of advice to clients.

"Most well-run firms already exact a high standard in their professional work. I can anticipate, however, that over time both the SRA and our insurers will force us all join," said Stanyer.

"It may mean more small high-street firms that have been the mainstay of the profession will close, and that would be a great loss to consumers. The only winners then would be the unregulated sector, the Co-op and 'Tesco law'."

She added: "It remains to be seen whether the Law Society will be able to convince enough members to sign up to the scheme. One could call it a brave attempt to raise standards in the profession.

"The scheme, though, may be too much for the many smaller firms that consider this work their bread and butter. I suspect many firms will adopt a wait and see policy."

Rycroft said the idea for WIQS came before the lord chancellor decided not to make will writing a reserved activity and it presented "an opportunity for solicitors who are highly trained, insured and regulated to promote the quality of their work by getting behind a brand which differentiates them from other providers in the legal market".

But Stanyer is unconvinced about WIQS and lamented the government's misunderstanding of consumer protection. "The public will remain at the mercy of unregulated will writers as a result and nothing that this scheme introduces will change that."

The pros and cons of WIQS were discussed at SJ Live in October


What do you think? Email jpalmer.violet@wilmington.co.uk

 

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Legal services Wills, Trusts & Probate