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Solicitors Regulation Authority publishes Residential Conveyancing thematic review

A review about the service provided by solicitors to the public

Executive summary

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.

Conclusions

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.

Next steps

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.

Read the full report here

Platform Economy in Legal Profession: An Empirical Study on Online Legal Service Providers in China

Platform economy breaks into the legal profession by pooling lawyers with different specializations into a simple user-friendly platform, consolidating the lower-tier supply side of the legal market and generating economy of scale. This paper is the very first empirical piece looking into China’s online legal service portals. It is found that, the intermediary functions of the portals as the “matchmaker” between the supply and the demand side are often commingled with certain substantive legal services, which cannot be easily unbundled from each other. Given the grand information asymmetry in legal service provision and the potential importance the users may attach to the portals’ recommendation, the quality of such intermediation and matchmaking still leaves to be desired. This being said, because the portals help to improve the access to justice in China by virtue of offering an EXTRA channel for acquiring and comparing potentially useful information, which is made available at a much lower cost than visiting a physical law firm, the regulator should strive to improve the quality, rather than block up the source of the information. To that end, this paper proposes, based on the inspiration of the ABS regime, an alternative license for these online legal service providers, which imposes minimum regulatory and leaves room for new innovative business structures to evolve.

Full Paper Available Here

Jing Li, Tilburg University – Department of Business Law

Measuring Legal Service Value

This article proposes a theoretical foundation for measuring legal service value. It aims to support efforts to compare the value of offerings from different law firms, as well as alternative legal service providers.

The value of any legal service depends on (i) its effectiveness, (ii) its affordability, (iii) the experience it creates for its clients, and (iv) third party effects (the impact the service-provider has on people other than the client).

These four elements of value can be quantified through various metrics applied to firms or entities that provide a given service. Output metrics evaluate either the actual real-world impact of a legal service service, or the written and oral work products of the firm. Internal metrics check for processes or structures within a firm that demonstrably support high value outputs. Input metrics focus on the attributes and credentials of the individuals who provide the service.

This article concludes that measuring legal service value is challenging, and may be dangerous if done poorly. Nevertheless, the rewards justify the challenge. Higher quality legal professionalism, more effective and less burdensome regulation, and consumer empowerment are among the payoffs if we can find better ways to measure legal service value.

Download paper

Citation:  Semple, Noel, Measuring Legal Service Value (March 20, 2018). University of Windsor Faculty of Law, Canada

Understanding consumer experiences of conveyancing legal services

Conveyancing is one of the most common legal services people use in their lifetime, with more than one million homes bought and sold every year in the UK.  However, there are some concerns about the conduct of some solicitors and the quality of service they are providing, with high proportions of insurance claims and complaints to the Legal Ombudsman relating to conveyancing. There are also increasing risks for users of conveyancing services, as technology enables cybercrime and mortgage fraud.

The UK Government has acknowledged these problems and has committed to reforming the conveyancing process, to make it cheaper, faster and less stressful. The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) also has concerns that poor transparency about price, service and quality is having a negative impact on consumer choice and competition.

Summary

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) commissioned independent research involving 1,501 people who had bought or sold a property during the previous two years. The research explored people’s experiences at each stage of the process, from how they found and chose their solicitor and their satisfaction with the service, to how they thought technology could improve services in the future.

The research found that 76 percent of legal service users were satisfied with the service they received from their conveyancing solicitor. However, it has also identified several areas where improvements could be made.

One key area for improvement the research highlighted was the need to provide people with better information throughout the conveyancing legal process, from the point when they are shopping around all the way through to when the transaction is completed. This information is particularly important for first time buyers and sellers, and for transactions that need specific detailed advice, such as leasehold purchases.

Key findings

Finding and choosing their solicitor

The SRA found there is an appetite for shopping around, including using comparison websites, particularly among first-time buyers and sellers. But there is a lack of information on price and description of services on firm websites, as well as limited information on regulation and consumer protections.

This is currently obstructing people’s ability to fully research and compare providers, so informed decision making difficult.

  • 55% of people rely on recommendations to choose their solicitor, the most common being from estate agents (27%) and friends, family or colleagues (25%).
  • 40% of all people surveyed were aware of comparison websites for legal services providers. Of these, approximately 1 in 3 used one to compare conveyancing providers.
  • First-time buyers and sellers were more likely to have found their solicitor through recommendation (64% compared to 51% with previous experience).
  • Cost (87%) and being a conveyancing specialist (81%) were the most important factors that influenced which solicitor people chose.

Previous SRA research into price transparency found that the vast majority of firms do not advertise price information, and only 15 percent of people were able to obtain prices without having to contact a solicitor directly.

Information and communication

  • One in five people did not think their solicitor provided a clear explanation of the legal process, a figure that rises to two out of five among first time buyers and sellers.
  • One out of three of people did not remember receiving information on how to complain.
  • One out of five of people who had bought a leasehold property did not remember being provided with any information on the length of lease, service charges and other payments, such as ground rent.

Quality of service

  • Over three quarters of people were ‘very satisfied’ (46%) or ‘quite satisfied’ (30%) with their solicitor’s service. This compared with 14% who were dissatisfied.
  • People were satisfied with the service because of speed and efficiency (25%) and because their solicitor was easy to contact and kept them updated (14%).
  • People were dissatisfied because their solicitor was slow and inefficient (37%), communicated poorly and did not keep them updated (22%) or made mistakes (17%). Mistakes typically related to drafting of contracts or errors in the property’s title.

Complaints and redress

  • 9% of all survey respondents made a complaint to the firm about their service. This equates to just over one-quarter (26%) of respondents who said they were dissatisfied. This low rate may be linked to the fact that less than a third of people recalled being given information on how to complain in the first place.
  • First time buyers and sellers were more likely to complain (20% compared to 5% with previous experience).
  • Mistakes made by the solicitor in legal documents or invoices and poor customer service, particularly communication, were the main reasons for complaints.
  • Three quarters of people received a positive outcome to their complaint from their solicitor, including committing to progress the work (27%), an explanation to allay concerns (24%) and an apology (23%).
  • 14% of those who made a complaint reported that they did not receive a response. This issue was also identified in our previous research into solicitors’ first tier complaints processes, where 20% of complainants reported not receiving a response.
  • People demonstrated poor understanding of regulation in the legal services market. Some said they were unaware if their solicitor was regulated when they chose them.

Opportunities and risk of digitisation

  • People recognised the benefits of digitisation and automation for conveyancing transactions and were open to the prospect of more technology being introduced, suggesting it could ‘de-mystify’ the process for first timers.
  • However, they also identified several risks associated with this continued move towards digitisation, including cybercrime and fraud. Information security and protecting client money are two of the SRA’s priority risks for 2017/18.

Download the full report

The legal needs of small businesses 2013-2017

The Legal Services Board (LSB) has published its third research report focusing on the legal needs of small businesses and looking at how their views have changed – and the legal services market has responded – since similar research was conducted in 2013 and in 2015. It is the largest ever survey of small firms’ interactions with the legal sector drawing on over 10,000 responses.

This research tracks how an individual or business responds when faced with a problem that can be resolved using legal processes.

Commenting on the report, Dr Helen Phillips, Chair of the LSB, said:

While our research suggests the impact of legal problems on small businesses has decreased the estimated annual cost to the UK economy of their legal problems is still very substantial, at roughly £40bn. More worryingly 20% of businesses reported health impacts for staff from these legal problems, which could affect more than 1m individuals.

There still remains a perception of legal services as expensive – whether or not that perception is accurate – resulting in many businesses either ignoring legal issues or trying to handle them alone. It is hoped that work by regulators and others to implement the CMA recommendations on improving transparency should help address these issues over time.

There are so many opportunities for legal service providers to expand their business if they can tailor their services to what this group of consumers need, raise awareness of their services and overcome perceptions of high cost.

Key findings from the research include:

Business problems have declined in incidence

  • Around a third of small businesses had a legal problem in the preceding 12 months. This represents a fall from 36 percent in 2013 to 31%
  • The most frequent issues across the three waves of the survey are:
    • late or non-payment for goods or services provided
    • goods and services not as described, and
    • liability for tax owed.
  • Around half of small businesses reporting a legal issue said it had a negative impact
  • Total annual losses to small businesses due to legal problems is estimated at £40bn, and over 1 million individuals in small businesses suffered ill health.

Engagement with legal service providers remains limited

  • There has been a significant increase in the proportion of small businesses doing nothing when experiencing a problem (10%)
  • proportions adopting strategies including handling alone (50%) or using an advisor (24%) have changed little between 2013 and 2017
  • Less than one in 10 employed in-house lawyers or had a retainer. When advice was sought, accountants were consulted more often than lawyers
  • For those that did use a lawyer, 22% shopped around to find a provider. 50% of those who shopped around found it easy to compare different providers.

Views on cost effectiveness of lawyers have not improved

  • Just 11% of small businesses agreed that lawyers provide a cost effective means to resolve legal issues – this is down from 14% in 2015
  • Satisfaction that law and regulation provide a fair trading environment increased from 30% in 2013 to 44% in 2017.

See the full report

Vulnerable consumers

A qualitative study of how consumers with mental health problems and dementia experience legal services published by the Legal Services Board (LSB), England and Wales.

Why is this research important?

The LSB has a strategic objective to reduce the existing high levels of unmet legal need. Ensuring the needs of vulnerable consumers are understood and addressed is key to delivering legal services that everyone can access and trust. This research opens a window on the experiences of two specific groups of vulnerable consumers.

Why undertake this research?

Large and increasing numbers of people have mental health problems or dementia. It is estimated that one in four people is likely to experience a mental health problem during their lifetime. There are around 850,000 people in the UK with dementia, which is expected to reach 1 million by 2025. We also focused on vulnerabilities linked to mental health problems and dementia as these were areas identified during the scoping phase of our project as having less of an existing evidence base.  The LSB commissioned 60 in-depth interviews across England and Wales with individuals with either mental health problems or dementia (or their carers). All the participants had used, or tried but failed to use, legal services in the preceding 18 months.

All of the relevant outputs of this research and further background to the project can be found here.

Opportunities for law firms to tackle unmet legal need

The opportunities for law firms to reach out to potential clients are outlined in a new paper published by the SRA.

Improving access – tackling unmet legal needs outlines some of the barriers faced by the public and small businesses when they need legal services. It also details ways in which law firms can develop their businesses to address this gap in provision.

Research has shown that only one in ten people or small businesses ask solicitors or barristers for help. Among the barriers people said stops them seeking help from professionals are a lack of information on what is available and perceptions of high costs – with 83 percent of small businesses believing services will be unaffordable.

Many law firms are however already finding ways to bridge the gap, and the SRA is changing the way it works to help more solicitors provide new services in new ways. They have published proposals for the next stage of their Looking to the future programme, which should give firms more flexibility in the way they work.  And they are also working on proposals endorsed by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to find suitable ways for firms to publish more information about their work and prices, if appropriate.  Read the SRA’s response to the CMA’s report and recommendations here.

Crispin Passmore, SRA Executive Director, Policy, said: “We regulate in the public interest, so it makes sense that we do what we can to help the public access the legal services they need. We have already made changes that make it easier for firms to offer accessible and affordable services such as unbundling services, firms reorganising their structures, helping clients that are more vulnerable and taking on more pro bono cases.

“This report looks at some of those examples in more depth, and looks at the ways in which we can play a further role in helping the profession connect with potential clients. That includes freeing up solicitors to work wherever they want, including in businesses outside LSA regulation, and exploring the options on publishing more detailed information about our firms.”

Improving access – tackling unmet legal needs is a supporting paper for the SRA’s Risk Outlook.

The legal needs of small businesses 2015 survey

Large scale quantitative survey of the experiences of 10,528 small businesses, showing the origin of legal problems that they face and their strategies for dealing with these problems, including where they seek advice and their experiences of doing so.

Read the report on the LSB website

Higher Demand, Lower Supply? A Comparative Assessment of the Legal Landscape for Ordinary Americans

Comments on the lack of data available, provides a summary of a US household legal needs study in 1994 where 50% of households experienced one of more legal problems annually.

Of those with legal needs, 37% of the poor sought assistance from a third-party for resolution of the problem, 29% from a specifically legal third party such as a lawyer (21%) or other from a non-legal third party (8%). Among moderate-income households, assistance from a third-party was sought with 51% of problems, 39% from a specifically legal source (lawyers 28%, other legal/judicial 12%).
Comparing findings of US and UK legal need studies: the specific use of lawyers in the U.K. surveys is roughly the same as in the U.S.: 27% in England and Wales, 29% in Scotland versus 26% in the U.S. Where the substantial difference emerges is in the use of other third-parties. Moreover, because non-lawyers in the U.K. are authorized to give legal advice (such as volunteer-staffed Citizens Advice Bureaux or proprietary legal advice centres), the effective difference is even greater: Americans received advice from those who are able to give legal advice in only 37% of cases, compared to 60-65% of U.K. cases. Furthermore, a far smaller percentage of the U.K. respondents, as compared to U.S. respondents,

Gillian K. Hadfield. (2010) Higher Demand, Lower Supply? A Comparative Assessment of the Legal Landscape for Ordinary Americans Fordham Urban Law Journal.

Read article on Selected Works website