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Notaries lose confidence in regulator’s ability to oversee probate and conveyancing work

Box: Conviction prompted concern

The Notaries Society is calling on the profession’s regulator, the Faculty Office of the Archbishop of Canterbury, to abandon its oversight of the “extremely high risk” activities of probate and conveyancing given the cost needed to do it properly.

In a circular to all its members, the society said its ruling council decided last month with “a degree of reluctance” to call for the pull-out.

“Purely on the basis of risk to the general public, and the lack of manpower of our regulator the Faculty Office, those notaries who wish to carry out the reserved activities generally referred to as ‘conveyancing and probate’ should no longer be regulated by the Faculty Office in respect of those particular activities.

“This decision was not made lightly and involved considerable debate with many differing views and has absolutely nothing to do with the skills or professionalism of the individual notary.

“However, unfortunately it reflects the current legal climate where ‘probate and conveyancing’ are extremely high risk legal activities.”

The society said the Faculty Office was not “sufficiently equipped” to go on regulating the two activities without “substantial additional expenditure” which would inevitably increase the cost of practice.

The move was prompted partly by the conviction of notary and solicitor Linda Box [1], senior partner of Wakefield firm Dixon Coles & Gill, jailed last year for stealing over £4m from clients and struck off by the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal.

Like Ms Box, most notaries are also solicitors, and regulated in probate and conveyancing by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). However, around 35 of a total of around 780 are regulated directly by the Faculty Office for these activities.

The society said the SRA, Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) and Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) were “recognised as the main regulators” of probate and conveyancing and had the necessary resources to regulate them.

The society added that although Ms Box’s dishonesty occurred in her role as solicitor, her strike-off and conviction had caused “considerable concerns”.

The Society of Notaries was responding to a consultation paper from the Faculty Office on the introduction of entity regulation.

In the paper, the Faculty Office warned that probate and conveyancing can “carry very significant regulatory risks given the need for these practices to hold large sums of client monies”.

It said that the regulatory ‘burden’ and potential costs associated with holding client money were “generated by a very small number of notaries” but borne by the whole profession.

Rather than pulling out of probate and conveyancing, the Faculty Office suggested imposing “low thresholds” on the amount of client money which could be held by notaries in their own capacity – up to £25,000 for each client and £50,000 in total at any one time.

Neil Turpin, chief clerk of the Faculty Office, said the consultation was “very much an open one” and the office had not made up its mind on the issue.

He accepted that the limits on client money suggested in the paper were so low it would make it difficult for notaries to carry out conveyancing and remain regulated solely by the office.

Mr Turpin said that although the office had never had to take formal disciplinary action in relation to a probate or conveyancing matter, that was where the “potential risks” were, since notaries could find themselves holding a “very considerable amount of money for a short amount of time”.