SDLT: market and conveyancers burning up and out
By Susan Humble
Susan Humble warns tired conveyancers to tread carefully over coming months when it comes to compliance
The Bank of England’s chief economist has warned the UK housing market is “on fire”. The market is not all that is on fire: 'burnout' is to become completely exhausted through overwork.
Lifting the stamp duty land tax (SDLT) threshold from £125,000 to £500,000 in July 2020 was intended to help those suffering from the financial impact of covid-19 and to boost a languishing property market.
Limb two has been achieved with bells on; the jury's out on limb one.
House prices have risen on average by 9.5 per cent in the last 12 months, according to the Halifax House Price Index, May 2021.
This rise wipes out the value of the stamp duty saving on an average-priced house. The tax break ends on 30 June, with a staggered return to normal until 1 October 2021.
A proper holiday is a mythical beast for conveyancers. A unicorn – talked about, longed for, but not seen except as birthday cake for children whose parties have been missed due to completions. Burnout is a significant risk to be taken seriously.
In its February 2021 Sectoral Risk Assessment - Anti-money laundering and terrorist financing, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) commented: “Property is an attractive asset for criminals because of the large amounts of money that can be laundered through a single transaction.”
Furthermore: “Conveyancing is currently at further risk because the stamp duty land tax holiday aims to increase the number and value of property transactions”.
Conveyancers are handling volumes of deadline-sensitive transactions for clients desperate to save up to £15,000.
Achieving the saving is a 'must have'. The money readily translates into a new car, or kitchen, or wedding. Solicitors are the final obstacle to reaching the dream unless they labour through the night or turn work away (which helps them, but not the consumer).
Regulatory requirements are not on holiday. Being busy is no defence to a lapse.
In January, the media warned about stamp duty scams. The SRA covered the rise in phishing in its 2020/2021 Risk Outlook, published November 2020.
It also identified as a current consideration: “Some compliance officers have increased the time they spend on fee earning rather than compliance tasks.
“It is important that this does not lead to issues and that law firms maintain compliance and keep their systems and controls in check. This is likely to affect small firms more.
“There is an increase in vendor fraud, where properties are offered for sale by fraudsters without the consent or knowledge of the genuine owners. Sometimes, these are homes of elderly or vulnerable people.”
The risk of being duped is high. Too much work and client pressures, coupled with late nights and lack of rest may encourage the cutting of corners on conveyancing compliance.
Fake sellers (perhaps organised by the estimated 5,000 plus criminal gangs in the UK alone) often use forged documents or stolen identities.
Under pressure, with a full inbox, the temptation to 'just get on with the work' is there.
Identities are taken as read, assisted by blurry video calls where passports are held up to a failing webcam. This approach is a false economy.
Conveyancers must look for the red flags out of the corners of their tired eyes:
- Is the property price significantly adrift from market value?
- Is the client reluctant or unable to provide ID?
- Do the ID documents appear genuine? Look closely.
- Is the pressure to complete the transaction very quickly, reasonable?
- Are you instructed to do more than minimal work?
- Does the story round the transaction look complex or unusual?
- Is the purchase in cash?
- Are unconnected third parties receiving or providing funds?
Solicitors are also reportedly charging high fees for routine conveyancing. Fees must be outlined online to comply with transparency regulations.
Tracking back to see what your published charges were 15 months ago will be simple for the SRA. It is essential to be transparent with the client about what they are paying for and why. Investigations for overcharging during a pandemic may be the SRA's next trend.
For those for whom compliance is a burden, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow reminds us: “It takes less time to do a thing right than to explain why you did it wrong”. Wise words.
Susan Humble is a senior partner at RIAA Barker Gillette riaabarkergillette.com and former CEO of the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal