A new membership body for estate planning firms aims to disrupt the sector by providing a home for regulated and unregulated firms ranging from law firms and accountants to will writers and genealogists.
Trevor Worth, chair of the British Estate Succession and Trust Planning (BEST) Foundation, said BEST would also act as an “agitator”, speaking out more strongly than other organisations against malpractices such as pre-paid probate services.
The move comes as research by the Legal Services Board published in June found that the unregulated sector was taking a growing share of both the consumer and the SME legal services markets.
Although the research estimated that unregulated firms had taken a share of only 9% in the market for individual consumers, the board said the proportion in areas like will-writing was “likely to be much higher”.
Mr Worth said that around 60% of the 100 firms that had joined BEST since it was launched earlier this summer were unregulated. Of the remaining 40, around half were providers of services to estate planning firms and half were regulated, whether solicitors, accountants or financial advisers.
Mr Worth is managing director of unregulated wills and probate business Portcullis Legals, which has been regularly in the news for introducing a four-day week in 2019.
He said IDR Law, a contentious probate specialist based in Yorkshire, was the largest firm of solicitors to join up.
“There is an awful lot of talent out there doing great things, but we just feel the tree needs to be shaken. The unregulated sector is good for innovation, customer service and value for money, but there is a low barrier for entry.”
Membership of BEST is open only to firms. Mr Worth said firms must use software to produce legal documents and not just templates, and provide evidence of this and of their professional indemnity insurance.
Identity and criminal records checks are carried out on members of staff at each firm. The membership fee depends on size and ranges from £10 per month for a sole practice to £3.75 per member of staff for firms with over 100 members of staff.
Mr Worth said new members were offered a free micro-site on BEST’s website, because it wanted to “help drive business for its members”.
A guarantee for clients means that, if any BEST member firm goes out of business and fails to complete work for a client, another member will step in.
The BEST foundation panel will also consider complaints where clients are dissatisfied after complaining first to the firm involved and consider whether to provide free arbitration or a refund.
Mr Worth said BEST had already campaigned over delays at the Office of the Public Guardian and later this month would be speaking out on the issue of pre-paid probate services.
He said these should be stopped because probate might not even be needed when customers died and some of the firms involved may well not exist.
“We want to be an agitator that spots things that aren’t right and calls them out. Other organisations don’t do enough.”
Mr Worth, who is qualified with the Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners (STEP), said STEP was different in being open to individuals and more focused on education than BEST.
The Institute of Professional Willwriters was different as well, because it covered only one part of the estate planning world.
On the issue of whether estate planning should be regulated, he said: “I have always had a belief that the sector should be regulated but if we can create an environment where self-regulation is actually regulating the sector, and not just collecting membership fees and giving out badges, then I believe that is a realistic alternative.”
Mr Worth added that he was “certainly in favour” of regulated and unregulated firms “being placed under one overriding body for compliance purposes”.
He described as “excellent” the report of the independent review of legal services by Professor Stephen Mayson, which argued for a single regulator, with regulation based on activity rather than professional qualification.