The Law Society’s advertising campaign on behalf of personal injury practitioners is to be applauded. But private client practitioners have long had their own battle with corporate providers of probate services, which include most high street banks.
The public is frequently misled and overcharged because they do not go to a solicitor for probate services. Historical ethics against advertising legal services and prohibitive cost mean that most lawyers are unable to compete against the corporate competitors on a level playing field. For the private client sector, the Law Society can help to get the following messages across to the the public:
Be aware of who you are dealing with. Although initial contact with the probate service provider is made at the instigation (sometimes the insistence) of bank branch staff, the probate consultant who then visits your home is not an employee of the bank. The probate consultant is employed by the third-party company. Do you know who they are? Have you heard of them before? Probably not. Do you really want to trust such an important task to complete strangers?
Avoid the hard sell. The probate consultant is not legally qualified; they are a salesperson whose task is to sell you the service. They will want to take away the estate papers (including any will). We hear from clients who have felt pressurised to sign up during this initial meeting.
Seven-day cooling off period. You must be told by the probate consultant about your right to cancel the contract within seven days.
Get another quote. We hear from clients who have paid very high fees, even when the work was actually unnecessary. These companies quote a ‘fixed fee’, but that usually means a fee based on a percentage of the value of the estate, often 2%-4%, which, in many cases, is excessive when the amount of work involved is considered. When clients have expressed surprise at the high cost, they have been told a ‘solicitor will charge double’.
Retain control. These companies usually require their clients to sign over their right to make decisions about the estate. We hear from clients who have done so but had no idea of the effect of the paperwork they have signed. They were no longer able to make decisions about the estate. Instead decisions were made by an employee of the probate services company.
Make an informed choice. Don’t give in to the hard sell – you don’t have to sign up immediately. Ask about the company providing the service, and the qualifications of the staff with whom you will have day-to-day contact (by telephone). Consult an alternative provider, such as your local solicitor. If necessary, exercise your right to cancel within the cooling-off period.
So, Law Society, how about doing something for private client lawyers as well?
Brendan Pang, Stokes Partners, Crewkerne, Somerset