Group of 10 threatens high street

Eversheds is rallying 10 of the UK's largest property firms to promote low-cost volume conveyancing and bypass the Law Society in talks with mortgage lenders and government.

The 10 firms undercut high street practices by using paralegals and telephone-based conveyancing. They include Eversheds, Dibb Lupton Alsop, Hammond Suddards, Addleshaw Booth & Co, Shoosmiths & Harrison, Walker Morris and Marsons. They meet in London next Friday to establish a “trade association” at the behest of Eversheds partner Kevin Doolan.

The Government is reviewing the conveyancing process while the Law Society has, for four years, been negotiating with the Council of Mortgage Lenders to produce standard mortgage instruction terms.

But Doolan's letter to the 10 firms points out that the volume conveyancers' voice is not being heard against those of the 15,000 high street solicitors.

He claims that at one point the Law Society tried to insert a clause into standard mortgage instructions insisting that a solicitor had to be present when mortgage deeds were signed and that he had heard a Law Society representative say that the society should push for solicitors to take on liability for identity checks “because it favoured the high street solicitor”.

While Doolan stressed he did not want the new trade association to be “in any way anti-competitive”, prospective group members privately admitted the banding together of volume conveyancers would prove a severe blow for high street conveyancers. “I don't think high street firms have a future,” conceded one solicitor involved in the group.

Volume conveyancers have been making substantial inroads into the conveyancing market since Northampton's Shoosmiths pioneered a service by linking with Hambro Countrywide in April 1997.

Shoosmiths' conveyancing department operates over a seven-day week and can complete thousands of transactions a month.

Doolan's letter says volume conveyancers' market share “is likely to grow steeply in coming years”.

Marsons senior partner Brian Marson argued volume conveyancing was in the interests of both consumers and banks.

Hammond Suddards partner Lucci Dammone played down the move. “The way in which the conveyancing market will move will not be affected just because the top firms get together to talk,” he said.

However Sole Practitioners' Group spokesman Montagu Martin said the banding together of the bigger firms was a matter of “considerable concern” for his 5,000 members.

A “potential monopoly situation” could develop, he said. “I don't think that's in the interests of the public in the long term.”