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Legal ombudsman joins call for tougher controls on will-writing

Thursday, 16 October, 2014

The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has published a report criticising the poor service provided by many will-writers in both the unregulated and regulated sectors in England and Wales.

Last year LeO dealt with more than 1,000 complaints about wills and probate services provided by lawyers (it has no mandate to investigate unregulated providers). Most of them concerned excessive charges and delays, as well as failures by the lawyer to follow instructions.

In two-thirds of the cases, LeO found that the lawyer had erred and was ordered to make amends. This, it says, suggests that the legal profession has some work to do in raising its standards in the field of wills and probate work – which is currently the third most complained-about area of law.

'Service providers could better manage client and beneficiary expectations by avoiding misleading promotions and marketing, being clear about potential costs and timeframes for completing work, and explaining the limits of their roles and responsibilities – thereby reducing the number of avoidable disputes', says the report.

However, it also draws attention to the fact that unsatisfied customers of unregulated will-writers have very little recourse – and that this is not going to change in the near future because the government has ruled out bringing will-writing into the list of reserved activities in England and Wales. Research by YouGov suggests that 180,000 wills each year are being written by non-lawyers in the UK, though the activity is regulated in Scotland.

'Buying a will is fraught with risk and uncertainty', notes the LeO report, Complaints in focus: Wills and probate. It cites seven stories from its case files, exemplifying typical complaints like unexpectedly high charges, long delays, inaction by professional executors, over-zealous marketing, and errors in wills. In one case a law firm charged with liquidating the deceased's shares had not done so, but had instead paid the estate the portfolio's estimated value – which turned out to be GBP4,000 light of the real value.

In another case, a man complained to LeO that a will-writing firm had taken his money but failed to deliver the will. The firm's only solicitor had not been involved in the work – chiefly because no work had been done. The firm was unregulated and therefore LeO could not intervene.

LeO's head, Adam Sampson, is asking the government to reconsider, or at least consider, a scheme under which unregulated service providers can opt to be regulated by LeO. This, says Sampson, seems the most achievable means of protecting consumers in the short term, and would provide them with possible compensation of up to GBP50,000 – the maximum redress available from the Ombudsman.