A mystery shopper exercise by the Legal Services Consumer Panel failed one in four wills. Currently, there are no restrictions on who can draft wills and there are increasing numbers of unregulated will-writing firms with little or no legal training.
‘Sadly, the results of the research took us by surprise,’ commented Dr Dianne Hayter, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel. ‘The poor quality of too many wills left us with little doubt that standards across the whole industry need to be raised in the quality of will-writing, but also covering sales practices.’ The panel was ‘clear that it is only by regulating will-writing’ would ‘detriment’ be prevented and standards improved. However she added that did not mean ‘giving solicitors a monopoly’.
As the Legal Services Consumer Panel noted, will-writing was ‘unusual’ because alternatives to solicitors (banks, independent financial advisors, charities, trade unions, will-writing companies and providers of paper and online self-completion wills) had made ‘significant inroads into the market’ and accounted for one-third of wills prepared last year.
Ministers last looked at whether will writing should be regulated when they considered the passage of the Legal Services Act but concluded that was insufficient evidence of consumer detriment to justify this move. Following the move to regulate will-writing companies in Scotland and ‘mounting concern south of the border’ the Legal Services Board in 2010 asked the Panel for advice on problems that consumers face.
The panel found that one in four wills in its mystery shopper exercise failed its test with more than one in three of all assessments scoring either ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’. The same proportion of wills prepared by solicitors and will-writing companies were failed and were ‘almost just as likely to fail when the client had simple or complex circumstances.
Researchers also found ‘an undercurrent of sales pressure that played on ‘people’s fears’ and ‘a lack of transparency’ about what consumers were committing to (including costs); consumers could ‘end up paying enormous sums for services they do not need or which they could find far cheaper elsewhere’. A ‘recurring theme’ was beneficiaries being unable to trace wills due to will-writing companies becoming insolvent and disappearing without trace. There was also ‘a rogue element in the unregulated sector’ which was engaged in ‘sharp practices including very aggressive selling, gross overcharging and fraud’.
Jon is editor of the Justice Gap. He is a freelance journalist. Jon's books include The First Miscarriage of Justice (Waterside Press, 2014), The Justice Gap (LAG, 2009) and People Power (Daily Telegraph/LawPack, 2008). Jon is a journalism lecturer at Winchester University and a visiting senior fellow in access to justice at the University of Lincoln. He is twice winner of the Bar Council's journalism award (2015 and 2005) and is shortlisted for this year's Criminal Justice Alliance's journalism award