The Co-operative Group today announced that its legal services business is to be integrated with funerals in a new Life Planning Division. But the Co-op Legal brand will remain, continuing to offer a suite of services that includes personal injury, private family law and conveyancing.

In its annual results, the mutual announced that its legal services arm posted an operating profit of £1.5m in 2016, compared with a break-even performance in 2015. Income rose from £18m to £22m, lifted partly by more people coming to the business for estate planning and administration services.

After retrenching in legal aid (the Co-op did not renew family contracts that ended in 2016) and personal injury, estate planning is the Co-op’s biggest practice area. The mutual said today that the legal business is to be merged with its giant £300m FuneralCare service to create a new Life Planning Division.

CLS was one of the first three alternative business structures licensed by the SRA in March 2012 and was seen to be the pioneer for the new wave of non-legal entrants attracted to the sector following the Legal Services Act and subsequent liberalisation of the market. But the firm posted multi-million-pound losses in subsequent years, admitting that it grew ‘too fast’. A new ‘agile’ board led by managing director Matt Howells, who joined from Barclays, was appointed in 2014 to rebuild the business.

‘We have been working hard for the last couple of years to turn the business around,’ Howells said today. ’There a natural synergy between Co-op Legal, which is the leading probate business, but we will retain the brand and all of the practice areas that we presently provide.’

Co-op Legal no longer explicitly aspires to dominate the consumer market.  Howells told the Gazette his focus is ’building an organisation that is long-term sustainable’, founded on ’steady incremental growth’.

This was aided by the acquisition in late 2015 of Collective Legal Solutions, which added 100 associates and support staff in wills, trust and estate planning. Co-op Legal now employs some 470 staff in Manchester, Bristol and Sheffield. Howells said the firm is actively recruiting at all three sites in response to growing demand.

Howells added: ’In 2016 we continued to invest in the technology of our business, launching our new digital services for Wills, Probate and Conveyancing. Our newly rebranded Co-op Estate Planning business has also expanded our physical presence in communities across the UK, enabling us to speak to over 17,000 people about their later life planning needs.

’In May last year we rebranded alongside the wider Co-op rebrand and launched our new Member Legal Support helpline which is designed to help members solve everyday legal matters. As part of the new membership proposition Co-op Members will also receive 5% back across a number of our products and services as well as 1% going to their chosen local communities.

’Our integration with Funeralcare signals our tighter strategic focus on the Later Life Planning market and the opportunity to leverage the network and scale of the branch network across the UK as we continue to expand.’

Howells declined to speculate on the likely impact of forthcoming personal injury reforms on the business, stressing that the Co-op will await the outcome of the government’s consultation.