Conveyancing. Cut-price conveyancing in the dock
26 March 1996
Most solicitors agree that conveyancing fees are too low, considering the amount of time and effort put into the work and the responsibility involved.
The fees debate has also put the standards of conveyancing under the spotlight. These vary greatly and there is an urgent need to ensure clients know what they are entitled to expect.
Because there are no minimum standards, cut-price conveyancing can still be profitable. However, cheap conveyancing would be rendered uneconomic by the cost of improving standards.
My proposal is a client charter leaflet, published by the Law Society, to be sent by firms to all conveyancing clients before accepting instructions. This would spell out both the standards of service the client is entitled to expect and a complaints procedure.
The charter would include:
a requirement for solicitors to supply a detailed quotation in advance;
set response times to letters and phone calls;
a promise of regular communication with clients;
guaranteed advice on documents to be signed;
an undertaking to send clients statements of funds required in good time;
a commitment to supply a narrative in the invoice showing the work that has been carried out.
If space is allowed for logos and promotional material for individual firms, the leaflet could become a marketing tool.
Many firms do have high quality standards and complaints procedures but these are not marketable if the client, not knowing what to expect, is only concerned with costs.
Our firm decided a complaints procedure should focus on avoiding complaints in the first place, improving quality of service and saving downtime. We have been so successful in this that we plan to seek an Investors in People (IIP) assessment and quality audit. However, with cost the only measurement in the client's mind, we cannot market quality.
If the Law Society promotes this scheme, the names of all participating firms could be circulated to estate agents, banks, building societies, libraries and citizens advice bureaux, thereby ensuring valuable recommendations for member firms.
For the first time, clients would have a clear idea in advance of what service to expect and how much it would cost, together with the reassurance of a recognised complaints procedure if they are dissatisfied.
For the Law Society, the scheme, whether voluntary or compulsory, would be simple to administer and self-financing. Firms would pay for the leaflets and undertake to send them in advance to all conveyancing clients. The only audit would be counting the number of complaints against individual firms. It is likely that the number of complaints would be reduced and firms would have a better relationship with clients.
The Law Society would be seen to be acting to help the public by promoting uniform minimum standards, and supporting the profession by promoting quality with minimum administrative cost.
By eliminating cut-price services, there would be an opportunity for firms to charge fees which reflect the high quality of their work and it would encourage the proposal to ensure indemnity premiums incorporate no claims bonuses.
Firms participating in the scheme could receive discounted premiums and practices with numerous complaints against them might have premiums loaded. At the very least, insurers would receive an early warning of poor professional standards from the number of complaints logged against particular firms.
No scheme can prevent poor service, fraud or the collapse of inefficient or badly run firms. But by promoting quality, the legal profession will take the moral high ground away from the Council of Mortgage Lenders, of whose latest proposals to avoid legal responsibility The Times thundered: "This sorry attempt...should be withdrawn immediately."
Regulations already exist for client care and complaints procedures but these are hard to monitor. The leaflet scheme would be simple to monitor and self-financing. The auditors would be clients and other firms, and there would be no need for 'kite mark' audits. Moreover, the scheme could be extended with only minor modifications to a variety of legal services such as probate and personal injury. Quality would at last become marketable.
This scheme has something for everyone - better quality for clients, promotional opportunities for firms, less administrative burdens for practices and the Law Society - and it could even improve the cynical behaviour of the Council of Mortgage Lenders.