As if moving home weren’t stressful enough anyway: finding a house, having your offer accepted, selling your house, getting your mortgage approved, packing up your life, hoping everyone else in the chain is still good to go. Now you have to worry if your vendor’s solicitor is going to run off with all your money.
I was flabbergasted by a piece on Money Box last weekend highlighting the fake solicitors who made off with £735k from one unfortunate and unsuspecting consumer who thought he was buying a house that wasn’t even for sale – listen HERE. Nick Christofi didn’t suspect a thing until, in the thick of renovations, a letter came from the bailiffs addressed to the previous occupants who were, it turned out, being repossessed.
You’d think his solicitors would have checked this sort of thing, but according to Money Box their due diligence consisted mainly of checking the Law Society’s Find a Solicitor website (HERE). You’d be forgiven for thinking that such ‘due diligence’ offers little in the way of protection for solicitors’ clients, which is probably why Mr Christofi managed to recover a good portion of the sum from his own solicitor.
Future victims may not be so lucky. More recently, the, dare I say, hapless solicitors caught out by a similar sting are arguing in the Court of Appeal that it is reasonable to expect a firm on lists held by the Law Society and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) to be bona fide. If they succeed any consumer caught in the crossfire may have no access to redress.
But the real sucker punch in the programme came from the SRA Director of Intelligence and Investigation Steve Wilmott. Such an important-sounding title did not prevent him from coming across as, well, powerless to prevent such crimes happening again. He said consumers couldn’t rely on the lists 100% and that it wasn’t necessarily the SRA’s job to weed out fraudsters.
So what, exactly, is the point of the lists? The SRA itself has even issued a warning stating ‘the nature of identity theft is that fraudsters may have obtained some form of registration by fraudulent misstatement to the SRA and therefore an entry on Find a Solicitor should not be taken as verification that the firm is genuine’. Brilliant.
Come to that, what is the point of even using a lawyer if they can’t protect you during what is probably the largest, most important and definitely the most stressful purchase you can ever make?
Mr Christofi says his lawyer failed to spot a host of signs that at the very least suggested all was not as it seemed: differing email and postal addresses, a website that never worked and a law firm based in Rotherham but with a client account in North London.
It will be of little comfort to anyone caught out by this scam that it doesn’t happen a lot because when it does it can, obviously, be devastating. It is shameful that the SRA, whose very purpose is to protect consumers, is dragging its feet over accepting any liability for fraudulent firms appearing on its lists. There also appears to be no excuse for not amending the SRA rules to ensure bank account numbers are checked to ensure firms are legitimate.
Which means if you’re moving in the meantime you’d be well advised to follow the suggestion of Chris Harris of Lawyer Checker and meet the seller of your dream home personally. At least that way you’ll know you are buying something that is actually for sale.
Louise is a consumer champion and communications specialist. Before this, she ran a successful campaign for change in the legal sector (resulting in the Legal Services Act), worked in a law firm and at the Law Society. She is a trustee of the Public Law Project and cares about justice, fairness and cake.