Why are lawyers worried about probate rights for accountants?

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As it is now less than a year until the non-legal big brands are permitted to begin their grab for high street legal services next October, those areas of work that are reserved (more or less) exclusively for solicitors are beginning to seem increasingly precious in the eyes of the profession.It is no surprise, then, that the latest bid by an accountancy body to gain the right to license its members to apply for grants of probate is being met with a certain degree of unease by solicitors.

Indeed, research by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), the accountancy body in question, suggests that if accountants were able to exercise these rights, take up would actually be fairly high at the smaller end of the beancounters’ profession.

As Patricia Wass, chair of the Law Society’s private client section, told the Gazette last week, the concern for lawyers is not the fact that accountants may be able to perform this specialist area of work, but that they may become entitled to do so without undergoing the rigorous level of qualification achieved by solicitors.

She says: ‘We have long known that we will face competition from alternative business structures, and we know that we can’t stop non-lawyers making these applications.

‘What worries us is that we may not all be competing on a level playing field.

‘There are strict rules for solicitors who undertake probate work, and we want to be sure that new entrants to the market are governed by the same regulations.’

The Law Society had serious concerns over a previous application for a probate licence by the ICAEW, which it withdrew because at the time it would have meant that the body would have to contribute towards the Legal Services Board’s set-up costs. The Law Society claimed that that first application did not provide adequate consumer protection.

No doubt Chancery Lane will be scrutinising this second application just as closely when it is submitted. But ultimately the decision will rest with the LSB, which may be impressed by the potential benefit to accountancy clients of obtaining a seamless service without the need to instruct a solicitor.

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