In a robust defence of the will-writing industry, Steve Jenkins of leading provider Trust Inheritance argues that while some targeted regulation of the sector could help, there needs to be a strong focus on improving the quality of solicitors’ work
The two biggest elements of consumer detriment in the will-writing marketplace – as highlighted by the Legal Services Consumer Panel – are the number of people who die without a valid will, and the shocking number of people (one in four) who buy wills which are defective and often fail to achieve what the deceased intended.
This means that every year tens of thousands of people are paying millions of pounds for an inadequate service, mostly to solicitors who write the majority of wills. People believe by using a “regulated” solicitor, they will be receiving an expert service.
We believe that any outcome form the Legal Services Board (LSB) investigation into whether to regulate will-writing must address these two consumer-focused priorities above all:
- How do we encourage more people to write wills?
- How do we improve the quality of the wills themselves, and the overall service?
Addressing poor quality from solicitors
Trust Inheritance is a specialist legal services company, operating in a narrow area of the law, and providing a service which clearly appeals to a growing segment of consumers. Like conveyancing agents and claims management companies, we don’t believe we need to be regulated like a full-service law firm.
We’ve written 250,000 wills in the last 20 years, and we’ll write 20,000 more this year. We’ve honed our services over time, so we know what customers want, and because of our volumes, we can offer a professional, efficient service at a cost-effective price. It’s clear that what we offer is what many people want. So we strongly believe competition and an open market is the way to drive innovation and improve value for money to the public.
But we also agree with Citizens’ Advice, which has argued that solicitors’ firms should not be able to market themselves as will-writers unless they have been assessed as having suitably qualified staff with up-to-date knowledge of the law. The large numbers of poor-quality wills coming from high street solicitors surely makes this a priority, if the LSB wants to address consumer detriment.
Overall, we think the problems identified as being unique to the independent will-writing sector have been exaggerated, and the existing options for recourse underplayed.
It is wrong to suggest, as some do, that the independent sector is unregulated. Like any business selling to the public, our operations are covered by a host of laws and regulations. Key is the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. These regulations set out 31 specific practices that are considered to be unfair in all circumstances, including, for example, stating that discounts are time-limited when they are not, not giving consumers sufficient time to make an informed decision about purchase; and not leaving someone’s home when asked to do so.
Charging unreasonable hours for a job is also covered, and we would like to see Trading Standards and the Office of Fair Trading looking into what some charge for professional executor services in light of these regulations. At Trust Inheritance, we actively advise our clients not to appoint a professional executor, including us. Excessive estate administration charges are another example of major consumer detriment which we would like to see the LSB address.
All that said, we can see three areas where there could be an argument for specific regulation:
- Everyone (including solicitors) who markets a will-writing service should be able to demonstrate a minimum knowledge of relevant, up-to-date, legal requirements, for example by having undertaken some form of relevant legal training;
- Anyone writing a will should have in place adequate professional indemnity insurance, independently verified; and
- Anyone writing wills and related services to come within the remit of the Legal Ombudsman, to allow consumers access to an independent complaints and conciliation service.
Another major area of potential consumer detriment is around inadequate storage and retrieval of wills. We think there should be some way in which these facilities and processes are independently and regularly assessed, possibly via their annual report from auditors.
Steve Jenkins is the chief executive of Trust Inheritance