Will-writing and estate administration should become reserved legal activities, the Legal Services Board (LSB) has recommended.
The long-awaited conclusions of its statutory investigation also highlighted the need to improve standards among regulated providers like solicitors.
The consultation paper published today marks the start of a significant change in the way legal services are regulated. The LSB said that at present regulation is too focused on controlling entry through general education and training requirements, rather than the specific risks of a particular legal activity.
Therefore solicitors will not be passported into the new regime; existing regulators, such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority, will have to apply to be designated to regulate will-writing and estate administration. They will have to show that they have outcomes-focused arrangements in place to target the problems and risks caused by this work.
Regulation will likely focus on the entity, rather than relying predominantly on the qualifications of those doing or supervising the work, the LSB said.
The current regulatory framework is not serving consumers well because it is determined by who delivers the service and not by the risks involved, the investigation concluded. While competition can raise standards and reduce prices, it cannot alone solve all of the problems in this market.
The LSB said its investigation found “systemic problems with the services delivered by many different types of provider. We found consistent patterns of sloppiness, simple errors and poor communication. This often resulted in an unacceptable service. Too often consumers were subjected to unfair sales practices. There have also been well-documented examples of fraud and deception”.
While problems with quality, service, transparency and fraud were discovered across both regulated and unregulated providers, the LSB said the worst sales practices, issues with the safeguarding of wills, and the sufficiency of redress options, “appear to be largely confined to the unregulated sector”.
Subject to the responses to this and then a follow-up consultation, the LSB aims to produce a final report in the winter, which will recommend to the Lord Chancellor that he add will-writing and estate administration to the list of reserved legal activities.
However, reservation would not take full effect until there are regulators approved for all the different types of provider that currently exist and providers are authorised to do the work in sufficient numbers to ensure access to justice, consumer choice and competition is maintained.
LSB chairman David Edmonds described the decision as a “true public interest initiative”. He said: “For many people, the service they receive from their lawyer or will-writer meets their needs. But our research shows that there are significant numbers of people receiving poor service and poor outcomes…
“Ultimately, people must be able to write a will with confidence, not fear. For that to be possible, everyone offering such services must deliver a baseline of consumer protection. This is not about extending regulation for the sake of it; it is about maintaining public confidence in an important legal process, enhancing the environment for reputable providers and protecting consumers at particularly vulnerable times in their lives.”
Elisabeth Davies, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, said she was delighted that the LSB’s proposals closely mirrored the panel’s own recommendations.
“It will still be some time before regulation arrives, even with a fair wind. That’s frustrating, but this makes it vital for everyone – including solicitors – to redouble their efforts to address the evidence of poor quality wills revealed by the panel’s investigation last year.”