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Accountants launch bid to become ABS regulator, with 100 applications in the offing


Soare: widening consumer choice

Accountants could start offering reserved probate services to the public as soon as next autumn, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) said yesterday as it submitted its application to become a regulator of probate services and alternative business structures (ABSs).

At least 100 firms of accountants are likely to apply to become ABSs, according to the institute’s figures.

The ICAEW has also confirmed to Legal Futures that it will seek to regulate will-writing and estate administration should both of these become reserved activities following the Legal Services Board’s (LSB) forthcoming recommendation to the government.

Following consultation, the ICAEW has confirmed that it will take a twin-track approach to allow accountancy firms to do the work. They could become authorised firms – in which all principals and owners are individually authorised to conduct probate – or licensed bodies (the formal name for ABSs), in which not all principals and owners are authorised for probate.

Although the LSB has a year to consider the application, the ICAEW said “we hope to begin authorising and licensing firms in autumn 2013”. Research conducted for the application indicated that around 250 firms might seek accreditation from the ICAEW: 150 sole practitioners, who would have authorised firm status, and 100 larger practices, most of whom would look to become ABSs.

It told the LSB: “[Our application] will promote diversity in the legal services market by providing, for the first time, an opportunity for our members to enter the market and deliver probate services directly to consumers. It will enable our firms to provide a more integrated service to clients who seek the full range of probate services from one provider, facilitating more competitive pricing and creating greater efficiencies in service delivery.”

Vernon Soare, ICAEW executive director of professional standards, said: “As an experienced regulator I am confident that ICAEW will ensure its members and firms provide excellent probate services to the public. As the first professional accountancy body to apply to license alternative business structures, we recognise the importance of widening consumer choice in the legal services market and of protecting the consumer through effective regulation.”

The ICAEW will require accountants to undertake a course of three or four days to be eligible to undertake probate work, on the grounds that non-contentious probate work is “relatively straight forward, and are mindful of the fact that it is routinely undertaken by lay persons without formal training. We do not see non-contentious probate work as posing a risk to the administration of justice or the rule of law, and therefore do not consider that it necessitates substantial prior training”.

The institute has in part responded to criticism of the make-up of the new probate committee which will be responsible for overseeing the ICAEW’s work and which it had initially proposed would have a non-lay majority. In its response to the consultation, the Legal Services Consumer Panel had called for the committee to have a lay majority [2], in the spirit of the LSB’s internal governance rules for legal regulators, and the final application put forward a 50:50 split between lay and non-lay members.

The Law Society declined to respond to the consultation, saying that it would reserve its comments for when the LSB seeks views on the application.