Death by red tape

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12 January 2011

Posted by Louise Restell, head of public and legal affairs at Legal Futures Associate Russell Jones & Walker

Despite being a ‘consumer champion’ (my own words), I have never quite been convinced of the need to regulate will-writing. This is not because I don’t think there aren’t problems. It’s because I don’t think it will make much difference and is probably addressing the wrong issue, which is surely that not enough people make a will at all.

The Legal Services Consumer Panel’s call for evidence into the will writing market has, unsurprisingly, thrown up many horror stories similar to those highlighted on the BBC’s Panorama programme in August last year, including pressure selling, escalating fees, unforeseen deductions coming out of estates and bad advice.

But what is often overlooked is that these complaints are not just about the ‘professional’ will-writers who are now flooding the market to make a quick buck. Solicitors themselves are often at fault, yet solicitors are already regulated. I am willing to bet there are as many complaints about conveyances as about wills.

The Law Society has long supported regulation, although this is clearly as much about protecting solicitors as it is about protecting consumers. I suppose this is fair enough since that’s their job. So I was surprised that at least one of the lawyers I work with agrees with me. His argument was, of course, different from mine – he thinks the whole process and not just the document drafting should be regulated. But his conclusion is the same: regulating will-writing will solve little.

It is worth remembering that some of the problems in the market can be dealt with by existing consumer protection laws, such as the doorstep selling regulations, which ensure cooling-off periods for consumers to change their minds. And complaints about expensive storage costs or lost wills could be solved by setting up a central register of wills linked to the registration of deaths.

To my mind, by far the biggest problem is that one in three people in the UK dies without making a will – even I haven’t got around to it, despite my attempts, since my daughter was born two years ago, to become a responsible adult. One reason is probably that we don’t like talking about death, or money, very much. But another is surely that people are put off by the idea of a complicated legal process that needs a lawyer and a shed load of cash. If anything, regulation could make this worse.

What we should be promoting are simple, cheap, straightforward wills, stripped of legal jargon that people can do themselves or with minimal legal oversight. They do exist – and at the risk of a shameless plug, one such option is at For many people this will be sufficient and certainly better than nothing. The Law Society and others calling for regulation should focus their efforts here and not on the spurious benefits of more red tape.

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