Despite the challenges from licensed conveyancers, it is believed that between 85% and 90% of the conveyancing market are solicitors. However, it is hard to tell how accurate this figure is. Of only 600,000-800,000 transactions last year (which includes remortgages), the largest Land Registry users include Enact and My Home Move.
Somewhere between 3,000 and 4,500 solicitors’ firms are dependent on conveyancing to remain solvent. Despite the perceived simplicity of this work, a large percentage of complaints and claims against solicitors relate to conveyancing matters.
The combination of the downturn in the housing market and economic uncertainty mean that many solicitors who depend on conveyancing for their livelihoods face an uncertain future.
The time has come for the profession to make sure that the excellent service and professional guarantee offered by solicitors is recognised by the profession and the public. That is why the Law Society launched our residential conveyancing scheme (CQS) earlier this year. We want to do what we can to make sure that solicitors who are committed to practising excellence and high professional standards stand out in a crowded market.
The idea of a scheme was initiated by the Law Society Property Section Executive Committee which foresaw the difficult circumstances many firms now find themselves in. They also recognised the need to protect the current market share from competitors by establishing a quality mark that could be marketed to the public as a badge of excellence.
Crucially, for practitioners, the CQS will also help with the problem experienced by some smaller firms relating to mortgage lenders and professional indemnity insurers, which have identified smaller firms as being too great a risk to use or protect. The CQS will help address that by making it possible for both lenders and insurers to know that they are dealing with high-quality solicitors at minimal cost and difficulty to themselves.
For a variety of reasons, licensed conveyancers are currently seen as less of a risk in the context of mortgage fraud. The success of CQS through membership of the scheme may offer the only prospect for some firms to remain in the market.
The Solicitors Regulation Authority, lenders and insurers have all been consulted during the development of this scheme. I am pleased to say that the CQS has support from the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the Building Societies Association, the Association of British Insurers and Nationwide.
A number of key decisions were taken in formulating the scheme. First, the scheme would be run for the benefit of our members and their clients. It will only be open to firms of solicitors, not licensed conveyancers. The second was that the cost of being a member of the scheme would be kept low, and considerable capital investment would be required by the Law Society. This decision was approved by Law Society Council members, many of whom have no contact with the conveyancing market, but have a desire to support other sections of their profession.
However, we cannot compromise the integrity of the scheme. Entry to the scheme will test the responsibility of the principals of the firm who apply for membership and their controls over the organisation.
You will have to sign up for initial training that includes partners and staff involved in the conveyancing work, whether with legal documents, accounts, or with clients. The forms require detailed information and the standards are high, but I am confident that the majority of firms can meet those standards. Membership of the scheme will prove to be a positive asset, not only as a marketing tool but as an opportunity to reflect on and hone your own practice.
At the heart of the scheme will be the new Law Society transaction protocol. This will reinforce consistency of standards throughout the conveyancing process. Work will continue to develop new standards and processes for the benefit of solicitors and their clients.
Over time, it is hoped that real improvements to the conveyancing process can be achieved. The process demands interaction between members and relies on cooperation with other professionals as well as clients; the development work will take time and can best be tackled from within the new CQS environment.
Assessment for entry to the scheme is based on key risk criteria. There will be ongoing monitoring based on performance against standards. There will also be an element of enforcement to maintain the reputation of the scheme. Membership will be subject to annual renewal.
It is designed to be rigorous. We need to make sure that there is no doubt about the integrity and the high standards that CQS accreditation demonstrates for residential conveyancing practices. There is no reason why firms which are committed to achieving and maintaining high standards cannot achieve accreditation.
Firms and individuals that achieve membership will create a trusted conveyancing community, which will go a long way to resolving many of the challenges that currently undermine the reputation of many good firms.
The profession has shown a real interest in the benefits that this scheme can bring. Since we launched the scheme, we have received 113 applications from firms, ranging from sole practitioners to multi-partnership firms.
Over 125 enquiries have been received as a result of our webinar, and we continue to receive a steady stream of telephone calls and enquiries. We hope to accredit our first legal firm shortly.
I have made promoting the ‘solicitor brand’ a key theme of my presidency. I am committed to communicating the professional and personal integrity, skill and knowledge that solicitors possess. It is my hope that the CQS will go a long way towards helping to do that.
I would encourage solicitors to join the Law Society scheme in large numbers, so that we will be able to help ensure solicitors retain their central role and independence in the conveyancing market.
The benefits of the scheme to members are well worth the modest costs of application and the effort that is required. I hope that this article addresses the concerns of the small number of correspondents who have written to the editor of this magazine.
As someone who had to be accredited to practise in my chosen field, I understand the reluctance to submit to an assessment process, but I hope that you will do so not just for the personal satisfaction of succeeding but also to meet the need for the profession to work together in this specialist area of work.
Linda Lee is president of the Law Society