Pioneering web-based probate service goes live as two investigations into online legal advice begin

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By Legal Futures

27 March 2012


Online legal services: still in their infancy, suggests Roger Smith

A groundbreaking online probate service has gone live, allowing people to handle straightforward cases themselves for £349. In the coming months it will also be sold to law firms as a white-label product.

The launch of the Probate Wizard comes as Legal Futures can reveal that the Law Society has established a working group to explore the legal and regulatory implications of online legal services.

Separately, the Nuffield Foundation is funding an investigation into whether, and to what extent, online and telephone advice can replace face-to-face legal services.

Created by probate solicitor Tom Hiskey and IT developer Rob Blake under the Law Wizard banner, the Probate Wizard generates the grant of probate and inheritance tax forms based on information provided by the user. These are then checked for common errors – but not the legal content – by the Probate Wizard team and returned to the customer within two days to print and sign.

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The service also supplies letters to banks and so on, deals with the transferable nil-rate band, and produces various reports, including estate accounts for beneficiaries and creditors and a detailed valuation of the estate.

Customers have access to over 100 guides and videos – which include advice on when customers might need to instruct a solicitor, and on the fees they charge.

The Probate Wizard only charges once the customer has filled in the forms and wants to download them.

Mr Hiskey, who claimed the service is the first of its kind for probate, said he had the idea while in practice and left so he could make it a reality. “People used to baulk at my firm’s fees and ask if there was an alternative. So I took the plunge and helped to set up The Law Wizard, and I’m immensely proud that we can now provide the alternative that people have been looking for…

“We’ve found that if people have the confidence and a framework to do probate themselves, this is the preferred option and they can make significant savings.”

Research published by the Legal Services Board last week showed that nearly half of consumers needing to take out probate did it themselves – and even many of those who paid for services undertook some of the work personally.

Mr Hiskey said the research showed that people did find some parts of the probate process tricky.

The white-label service should be available at the end of the year, enabling solicitors to broaden their reach and cross-sell more valuable services. Solicitors could also use it as a workflow solution for probate work even when the client is sitting opposite them, he suggested.

Meanwhile, the aim of the Law Society group on online legal services is to produce guidance for solicitors. It is chaired by Luis Campbell, a solicitor and senior compliance manager at KPMG, and a member of the society’s rules and ethics committee.

The other members are drawn from a number of other Law Society committees, including the rules and ethics committee and the technology and law reference group.

The Nuffield-funded project – which is set against the backdrop of the legal aid cuts and the government wanting frontline advice available online or by telephone – is being run by Roger Smith, the director of legal charity Justice, and Professor Alan Paterson, director of the Centre for Professional Legal Studies at Strathclyde University.

To begin the work, Mr Smith has published a paper that outlines how little most online legal services seem to have moved “beyond what is effectively the digital leaflet stage”.

He argued that “there certainly needs to be a repositioning of Internet-based advice… Those giving advice on legal services should aim to provide it self-sufficiently on the net with the express aim, as in The Netherlands, that people will self-represent.”

There are certain implications just from that, he continued. It will be difficult to maintain charges for information, raising questions about how this will be funded, while further support will be needed.

“The first line of support should be through Skype or telephone to someone physically present but not in the room. Advisers in offices should be the second line of support. That requires a considerable retooling by the advice and law centre sector.”

 

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