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LSB’s will-writing investigation welcomed

Consumer panel says solicitors and will writers equally to blame

18 July 2011

Solicitors have welcomed the Legal Services Board’s decision to devote its first statutory investigation to the regulation of will writing, probate and estate administration.

David Edmonds, chairman of the LSB, announced the move after a damning report by the board’s consumer panel found that solicitors and will writers were equally responsible for substandard wills.

The LSB said it would consider making will writing a reserved activity under the Legal Services Act 2007, meaning that it could be regulated, but Edmonds warned it would not be an activity reserved to solicitors.

Helen Bryant, private client partner at Farrer & Co, said that solicitors would not do themselves any favours if they argued that they should be the only ones to prepare wills.

“It would be perceived as against the public interest,” Bryant said.

She admitted that she could not think of any case in which anyone other than a solicitor would be in a better place to prepare a will, but said wealthier clients did not always get value for money from their law firm.

Bryant said she was concerned about “sales pressure” from non-solicitor will writers and supported the idea of introducing regulation.

Geoff Dennis, solicitor specialising in private client at Brightstone Law in Elstree, Hertfordshire, welcomed the consumer panel’s call for the regulation of non-solicitor will writers.

He said the few bad wills he had come across were the work of both solicitors and will writers.

“Obviously there is better redress for clients of solicitors,” he said. “I don’t think it can be disputed that solicitors are also better at attention to detail.”

Dennis said some “rogue will writers” charged as little as £20 to bring in business and “ensnare old ladies”, before charging far more to act as attorneys or executors.

Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, said he was “delighted” the consumer panel had recognised the seriousness of concerns about dishonesty and bad practice from unqualified will writers.

Hudson said the society supported steps to improve training in the area and encourage improved standards for solicitors.

“What is most important to remember, however, is that solicitors are required to be covered by insurance, are covered by a strong disciplinary and complaints process and a compensation fund exists to ensure that consumers using solicitors do not lose out.”

David Harvey, chief executive of STEP, said the consumer panel report reiterated how widespread “cowboy will writers” had become.

“We have always believed that will writers should have appropriate qualifications, and they should also have proper indemnity insurance,” Harvey said.

He welcomed the LSB’s call for regulators and trade bodies to explore immediate steps that can be taken within the existing regulatory structures to raise standards across the market.

As part of its report, the LSB’s consumer panel carried out a ‘mystery shopping’ exercise with members of the public who were offered a financial incentive to obtain wills from a range of sources.

More than a fifth of the 64 wills obtained from solicitors and will writers were regarded as failures, mainly on the grounds of quality, and solicitors and will writers were to blame in roughly similar proportions.

However, only one out of 41 wills produced by solicitors failed on the grounds of invalid execution, compared to two out of the 21 produced by will writers.

The wills were assessed by a panel of volunteer experts, made up of solicitors and will writers in equal numbers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, wills created by individuals themselves online or on paper scored the worst results. Four out of 24 were invalidly executed, while half failed on the grounds of quality.

Dr Dianne Hayter, chair of the legal services consumer panel, said the panel was “shocked” by the poor quality of the wills produced in the mystery shopping exercise.

“Although the sample was small, will-writing companies and solicitors were equally culpable, pointing to the need for tighter controls across the sector,” she said.

In response, Edmonds said the board would consult widely on the consumer panel’s findings “which clearly indicate consumer detriment across wills produced by different kinds of providers”.

Edmonds added that it was clear from the results of the mystery shopping exercise that “a monopoly for solicitors is not the answer”.

Categorised in:

Professional indemnity Wills, Trusts & Probate Vulnerable Clients