At the risk of offending anyone, I have to say I have never thought of conveyancing as the sexiest area of law. Of course it’s necessary and I have no doubt every conveyancer has at least one really exciting transaction story they can tell at parties, but it doesn’t often get to make the headlines, certainly not like its bolshy and sometimes unruly cousin personal injury.
That said, it is the area of law most of us are most likely to have contact with at some time or other, which makes it disappointing that this week the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has been giving out rather mixed messages to consumers. Yes I know the Ombudsman is not a ‘consumer champion’, and nor should it be, but it also shouldn’t be putting out confusing information or, worse, scaremongering.
Based on really no evidence at all, at least nothing more powerful than anecdote, the LeO has warned that “alternative business structures (ABS) will create ‘conveyancing factories’ that exert a downward pressure on prices and could lead to an upsurge in complaints because of a focus on volume over service”. I can hear dinosaurs everywhere rejoicing.
As the excellent Richard Moorhead has pointed out on his blog (so I won’t do it again here) there is nothing in the LeO’s report to suggest that ‘conveyancing factories’ necessarily lead to a drop in quality. In fact, I would go as far to suggest that in some circumstances a factory (read, I assume, ‘automated volume system’) could quite possibly lead to an increase in quality by eliminating human error and ensuring a quick turnaround (runs for cover).
But I don’t just want to play devil’s advocate. The problem with the tenor of the LeO’s report is that it strongly implies ‘alternative’ providers of legal services are going to have a detrimental effect on consumers and that fixed fees could lead to more complaints, neither of which is demonstrated by the LeO’s data (Richard Moorhead again).
Now I don’t have the benefit of the LeO’s first-hand experience and wealth of data (even data that isn’t used properly), but I find extremely hard to believe that there could be more consumer complaints and more problems with legal services in general, and conveyancing in particular, than there were before the reforms ushered in by the Legal Services Act.
The LeO’s own figures illustrate how, after years and years of rising relentlessly, the level of complaints about lawyers has fallen since it was set up. There could be many reasons for this, including the unlikely one that the LeO is less visible than its notorious forebears. All the same, it seems odd to start sounding the alarm bells, particularly in relation to fixed fees where the likely reason for increased complaints about them is simply that there are more of them on offer.
Still, at least we have the data, which is an improvement on the darkest of dark days when the Law Society handled its own complaints (can you imagine such a thing?). And knowledge is power, or at least it should be, although I am not convinced the consumer is getting the true benefit of knowing a lot more than we used to about legal complaints.
The LeO asserts it may be years before complaints information, comparison websites, word of mouth and quality schemes will build up into ‘anything particularly meaningful or representative’. Which is small comfort for consumers put on their guard against risky conveyancing factories by the self-same organisation.
The following warning about online or call-centre conveyancers is taken from the LeO’s Using a conveyancing lawyer: Ten helpful tips “you may be taking a risk if anything unusual, or unexpected, crops up during the transaction. The individual responsible for your case may not have the same qualifications or experience as the lawyer on your local high street, which could mean that the advice you get may not be as informed as you’d like it to be”.
There is so much wrong and unhelpful with this statement I don’t know where to start. Who knew it was the consumer’s job to work out whether the professional they are using has the requisite qualifications? I rather thought that was the point of regulation. Silly me. And how am I supposed to know whether or not my conveyancing transaction is likely to be “straightforward without any particular issue”?
It’s taken me all afternoon, but in my capacity as ‘consumer champion’ I have managed to come up with some scenarios in which your conveyancing may not be the ‘straightforward’ kind the LeO refers to. But don’t quote me on any of this. I am not a lawyer.
- If you are selling and getting divorced at the same time. And good luck with that.
- If your property is not registered with the Land Registry, which means checking back over at least 15 years of documentation to certify ownership. Disputes over title are not uncommon, so if it’s not your dream home I wouldn’t bother going there.
- If your property is leasehold, which is where one building or block has multiple owners. If there are fewer than 60 years on the lease, you may also need a huge deposit (like 100%).
- If your property isn’t a house. Assuming flats are covered by the above, not sure what this means, bungalow? Boat? Barn?
- If you are only selling part of your property, like a bit of your garden to a developer (it is presumably larger than mine)
- If you’re selling at auction, homes-under-the-hammer style
- If your property isn’t freehold.
- All of the above (God help you)
It’s worth pointing out that you would be well advised not to attempt to DIY any of the above transactions either, particularly if, like me, you get bored reading through the self assessment form. With apologies to all the splendid licensed and solicitor conveyancers out there, it may not be the sexiest job but someone’s got to do it.