A review about the service provided by solicitors to the public
Published 5 April 2019
Buying and selling a property is often the most expensive and important financial commitment a person makes in their life. Having access to reliable and good quality legal support really matters. It not only reduces stress and uncertainty, but potentially directly impacts on whether a purchase is completed, and what the long-term financial implications may be for all involved.
While most property transactions are completed relatively seamlessly, figures from the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) show that residential conveyancing accounted for nearly a quarter of all complaints it handled over the past three years.
Our own research of consumers, conducted in 2018, also identified that up to a quarter of recent home buyers were dissatisfied with some element of the service they received from their solicitor. One common area of concern was an apparent failure to fully explain the detail and implications of contractual commitments.
What we did
We carried out this thematic review to better understand how firms are delivering residential conveyancing services, and whether they are fulfilling their obligations to their clients.
We visited a sample of 40 law firms offering residential conveyancing services and conducted a detailed review of 80 case files.
What we found
We found that most firms were fulfilling their obligations. In particular, we found that:
- all firms proactively communicated with clients at all key stages of a purchase, with the majority meeting them face-to-face at least once
- all firms provided clients with clear information on their complaints procedures
- firms are increasingly embracing technology, especially regarding how they communicate with clients.
However, we did identify areas for improvement. The two most significant and widespread were:
- inaccurate initial cost estimates – 34% of firms failed to include all the services/fees a matter could reasonably expect to attract in their initial quotes
- not being open about the real cost of third-party disbursement and their firm’s mark-up on these – specifically telegraphic transfers. In 37% of cases firms failed to do this, with some charging up to 10 times the actual bank charge for processing the transfer.
Other areas where we identified potential concerns included:
- not processing paperwork efficiently – especially in relation to requisitions raised by HM Land Registry
- not explaining the difference between freehold and leasehold ownership
- failing to double-check that a client understands the long-term implications of contractual obligations and fees.
This review clearly found that in the majority of cases, conveyancing firms actively engage with their clients and fulfil their obligations to them. Property deals progress in a timely and efficient manner and clients feel informed and supported throughout.
But sadly, this is not always the case.
Whether its providing unrealistic or incomplete quotes, or failing to make sure contractual information has been fully understood, solicitors are potentially leaving their clients exposed to significant risk or potential financial hardship.
This thematic review took place during 2018. In December the same year, we introduced new transparency rules which require firms offering conveyancing services to publish detailed price and services information, and their complaints procedures online.
The requirement to provide clear pricing information was not new. However, these rules, and associated guidance, now provide the profession with absolute clarity on our expectations for how they should be publishing price information.
These requirements include:
- outlining all known and potential costs a transaction may attract from the outset
- specifying all charges being added to the actual cost of any third-party disbursements.
As part of our ongoing work, we will continue to review compliance with these rules and will consider further action where necessary to make sure they are being followed.
On the specific subject of making sure solicitors explain contractual details to clients, especially in relation to leaseholds, we urge all firms to make sure that their clients understand their obligations. If we find evidence that people were not made aware of onerous clauses in their leasehold contracts, such as the regular doubling of ground rents, we will take robust action.
Following this review, we referred six firms onto our internal disciplinary processes. Five of these referrals included concerns about failing to declare that the stated telegraphic transfers fees included an additional charge/mark-up.
Data has always been a foundational part of the practice of law. However, the convenience, accessibility, and speed of digital mediums is transforming the discipline from within. Law firms are stepping up the plate leveraging their internal data, as well as industry data to make their practice and delivery of services more efficient and effective. E-Discovery, case predictive technologies and even fledgling artificial intelligence programmes are proliferating across top firms globally. Small and large firms alike are engaging with varying degrees of software to manage information and leverage its value.
It is time legal regulators attempt to match pace. This month ICLR.net is focusing on how legal regulators can start to think about data’s role in improving their regulatory responsibilities. We have identified four preliminary steps to help your institution to start thinking about leveraging data.
1. Start small and close to home: Identify your data sources
Identify consistent incoming sources of data. This may be lawyer registrations, renewals and fees. This “low hanging fruit” often serves as the fundamental data base, which can yield insights such as lawyer demographics and disciplinary patterns.
2. Clean and organise your data
Unwieldy spreadsheets no longer make the grade. Setting your organisation up for success means treating your data properly and preparing it for utilisation. Categorising and cleaning your data in a consistent manner will make things easier down the road. Data should be stored in a clear and structured format, which is both secure and shareable with appropriate access permissions.
3. Collaborate with those who know data
Some institutions may want to call the professionals in from day one. Smaller organisations may be able to tackle the first two steps on their own, but to begin to leverage analytics really requires a professional touch for the best results. You should be looking for a company specialises in data structures and analytics. The legal tech sector is rich with software providers offering data management products, but working with a professional in selecting the best fit for your organisation’s data or building a unique system is what will ensure success. It is key to work with someone with the skills as well as background knowledge and insights into the legal profession and industry.
4. Fostering a data-driven culture
Legal information and data powerhouse Thomson Reuters puts it best:
“Building a data-driven legal practice is not something you assign to a task force, department, or an individual. It requires a buy-in from everyone from the top leadership down.”
In addition, it is worth saying that employees at all levels should be involved in the data system development process, to ensure compatibility and realistic adoption and utilisation of the system. The human resource is what will bring an organisation the strongest return on any data investment.
Is data analytics for your organisation?
Some regulators may believe they are too small or the resource required to harness data is too great. However, these four steps can be completed at various levels, just as law firms of all sizes are engaging in data tools. Ultimately, it will be a matter of survival for regulators to keep pace with those they regulate. Information has a strong multiplier effect, and data analytics has the power to transform regulation and industry’s productivity as a whole.
We are interested in hearing about how your institution is using data to assist in regulation. Let us know! Interested in the power of data in regulation – get involved at this year’s annual conference. Contact Jim McKay (firstname.lastname@example.org) to become involved as a speaker or session moderator.
Colorado Supreme Court Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel started developing its lawyer self-assessment program more than two years ago, immediately after a seminal workshop on proactive, risk-based regulation at the 41st ABA National Conference of Professional Responsibility in May 2015. The new resource is a leading facet of a larger shift toward proactive management-based regulation, which aims to help lawyers practice ethically and soundly in the first place, rather than just reactively imposing discipline after lawyers make mistakes.
The new system provides the regulatory team with real time stats on lawyer engagement and self-assessed professional performance. It highlights the professional objectives scoring the highest and lowest across all respondents, providing the team with evidence to support further educational program development. The platform also has the ability to create customized lists of continuing legal education (CLE) resources based on each respondent’s own personal benchmarks and areas of need. These lists make yearly CLE planning fast and easy for lawyers, and keeps them focused on the most effective resources for their needs.
Jon White, staff attorney at the regulator, writes “The practice of law will always be challenging. The “ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” approach of the proactive practice program seeks to reduce some of that stress. The self-assessments give lawyers the blueprint to build an ethical infrastructure. Lawyers, in turn, benefit from enhanced peace of mind. Clients benefit from exceptional service. It is a win-win for all.” The insights generated by the program’s data is informing the regulator where practitioners need more assistance, and where there may be weaker points in the sector as a whole. Staying ahead of this issues protects the public and strengthens the jurisdiction as a whole.
In January, the Legal Services Board (LSB) of England & Wales released its “Regulatory Performance: Transitional Assessment Review” looking at the transitional assessment of each legal services regulatory body against the LSB’s regulatory performance standards. The report found that it had “sufficient assurance that the regulatory bodies have met the minimum required level of performance against the majority of expected outcomes”.
Transparency across the legal services market lies at the heart of consumer satisfaction. Recent Competition and Market Authority statistics found that before choosing their legal service provider 85% of consumers want better access to information, 53% want information about price, and 37% of consumers what to know about the quality of the service they would receive. In response, the Solicitors Regulation Authority released new price transparency rules, which requires regulated firms to publish price and service information on their websites.
Since 6 December 2018, all solicitors firms had to publish cost information in relation to conveyancing, probate, debt, employment and immigration. The new rules dictate that firms must provide a total cost or an average or range of costs, as well as explain the basis of these charges, including any hourly rate or fixed fees. Firms also must be clear on whether VAT is included, while also highlighting likely disbursements, and their costs. Any conditional or damages-based fees must be fully explained to clients who may have to make payments.
In addition to price transparency, firms are also required to ensure consumers under stand the services they require and are receiving. The rules demand firms
- Explain what services are included for the quoted price
- Highlight any services not included within the price, which a client may reasonably expect to be
- Include information on key stages and typical timescales of these, and
- Publish the qualifications and experience of anyone carrying out the work and of their supervisors.
SRA’s ‘Looking to the Future’ programme is based on a sound argument that law firms must become more transparent if they are to survive. Paul Philip, SRA Chief Executive, said: “Publishing information on price, services and protections will not only benefit the public, but will also help law firms win new business. Research shows that people struggle to find clear information about the services firms offer and think using a solicitor is more expensive than it actually is. We are providing guidance and support for firms to help them meet the new requirements and make the most of the opportunities they bring.”
The SRA has taken consumer protection and transparency a step further, introducing a new Digital Badge. Provided via software which will make sure only regulated firms can display it, the badge will show online visitors which firms are regulated and provide them with a link to information on the protections this provides. Displaying the badge will help firms differentiate themselves from unregulated providers. Use of the badge is initially voluntary but will become a mandatory requirement during 2019.
Challenges of Transparency
Due to the business structures of many law firms, publishing fees is no straightforward matter, leading to some to use a confusing blend of charts, costs schedules, calculators and costs estimates. It is the unknown factors of pursuing legal cases which can alter costs. Russell Conway, senior partner at Oliver Fisher, notes, “It’s the wiggle room issue which is going to be the bellwether as to how successful this project is”.
Price transparency undoubtedly remains vital to consumer protection and satisfaction. However, there are concerns that some consumers may be heavily influenced by price, rather than by skill and expertise. David Kirwan questions if, in a new transparent pricing environment, consumers will truly stop and weigh skills and expertise, rather than revert to low costs. These concerns are not isolated to the UK market, as globally practitioners have expressed concerns about an eventual ‘race to the bottom’. Kirwan notes that “How we as an industry respond, and the way in which we convince consumers that it’s worth potentially paying more to receive a high-quality service, will be crucial if we are to retain the high standards for which this country’s legal sector has become known”.
In considering the question of quality of legal services, greater transparency and public access to disciplinary records is also needed. One of the key findings of the LSB report highlighted that regulators must continue to maintain records of disciplinary sanctions in their official registers. The SRA has issued guidance to help firms clearly understand their obligations under Rule 2.1 of the SRA Transparency Rules to publish complaints. This guidance includes information on complaints handling procedure details, how and when a complaint can be made to the Legal Ombudsman, and details about how and when a complaint can be made to the SRA. Sarah Chambers, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) stated that “Making enforcement data available to consumers is an area that will particularly benefit from consistency in approach”.
Ultimately, providing the public with as much clarity and information as possible when it comes to the legal services they require can benefit not only the consumer, but promote and ensure quality and competence of the industry as a whole. The new transparency rules promulgated by the SRA in December 2018 will improve public access to legal services, ensuring such information on legal service providers is readily available to consumers.
Interested in transparency and enforcement? Contact us and share what is happening in your jurisdiction. There are also opportunities to get involved with the topic at the annual conference. Contact Jim McKay (email@example.com) to become involved as a speaker or session moderator.
Vulnerability to Legal Misconduct: Qualitative Study of Regulatory Decisions Involving Problem Lawyers and Their Clients
An emerging body of scholarship discusses ‘vulnerability’ as an antecedent of legal misconduct. One conceptualization of vulnerability indicates that an individual has greater susceptibility to risk of harm, and safeguards may protect against that risk of harm. This empirical study adds to the normative research with a qualitative analysis of 72 lawyers with multiple complaints and at least one hearing, paid financial misconduct claim, or striking from the roll (“problem lawyers”) in Victoria, Australia, between 2005 and 2015 through 311 regulatory decisions. We found that problem lawyers were disproportionately likely to be male, over age 45, and work in a sole or small practice. A quarter of these lawyers suffered from health impairments and among the clients harmed, half had cognitive impairments, were older age, or non-native English speakers. These findings underscore the need to better understand vulnerabilities to promote lawyer well-being, protect exposed clients, and reduce lapses in professionalism.
- Tara Sklar, University of Arizona – James E. Rogers College of Law
- Jennifer Schulz Moore, University of New South Wales (UNSW) – Faculty of Law
- Yamna Taouk, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health
- Marie M Bismark, University of Melbourne
The U.S. Supreme Court sent back a case challenging a nearly 30-year-old precedent allowing mandatory bar membership.
The case took aim at the county’s first mandatory bar, North Dakota’s, which required membership in the state’s bar association as a condition to practice law as early as 1921, according to the American Bar Association.
Although the state with the most lawyers as of 2017—New York—still has voluntary membership, 37 other U.S. jurisdictions have “unified” or “integrated” bars, which require bar membership, according to ABA statistics.
Arnold Fleck, a North Dakota lawyer, says the requirement violates his First Amendment rights. He asked the court to overturn a nearly 30-year-old precedent holding otherwise.
The Supreme Court said in 1990 that mandatory membership schemes pass constitutional muster so long as they don’t require members to “finance political and ideological activities with which” an attorney disagrees.
The Indiana Lawyer has released an article tackling one of the legal sector’s most contentious issues – Rule of Professional Conduct 8.2(a), which governs lawyers’ speech about judges. Lawyers, it seems, don’t want to address the topic for fear of being perceived as speaking critically of the judiciary, while judges seemingly don’t want to discuss situations where they feel they have been unfairly criticized. According to an Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law professor, the unease surrounding Rule 8.2(a) is not a matter of respect, but rather a matter of lawyer fear. Professor Margaret Tarkington takes a deep dive into caselaw surrounding lawyer speech and related discipline and concludes that rules similar to 8.2(a) can cause attorneys to stay tight-lipped even in the face of judicial misconduct.
The slaying earlier this month of a prominent human rights lawyer in the Philippines who worked on behalf of poor suspects accused of drug-related crimes has sparked a renewed outcry over President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. The lawyer, Benjamin Ramos, was gunned down by two unidentified assailants on Nov. 6—the 34th lawyer to be killed since Duterte took office in 2016. In an interview with WPR, Imelda Deinla, a research fellow at the Australian National University’s School of Regulation and Global Governance, explains why Philippine lawyers are being targeted and how this wave of violence is affecting the country’s legal institutions.
Read the full story from World Politics Review
13-14 September 2018
The Canadian Institute for the Administration of Justice is hosting its bi-annual Legislative Drafting Conference – “Charting Legislative Courses in a Complex World”. The Conference will tackle one of the most pervasive challenges in modern legislation: complexity, beginning with its principal drivers in public policy. Why does our world generate legislative complexity? And how can legislation address this complexity intelligibly, coherently and effectively? Conference sessions will also focus on examples of today’s complexity challenges in international trading relationships, cannabis de-criminalization and the interaction of state law with indigenous legal traditions. Other sessions will focus on pragmatic drafting solutions to particular facets of these challenges, such as interjurisdictional coherence, resolving policy blockages, drafting for clients with limited policy-resources and achieving legislative coherence over time. The conference will include a wide range of speakers from Canada, the UK and beyond.
13-14 September 2018