I work in a provincial practice with three town centre-based offices in Cheshire, and it is with interest that I read about HSBC’s new ’shortlisted’ panel of 43 law firms and licensed conveyancers. This follows talk of some of the other mainstream lenders such as the Lloyds Banking Group also making moves to reduce the number of solicitors on their panels.
Lately, I find myself pondering the question of whose interests this will ultimately best serve? HSBC has said that its customers will now ‘have the advantage of competitive fixed fees, as well as benefiting from the speed, efficiency and consistent quality of service provide by firms on the panel’. Surely this is every good firm’s aim, and is not unique to the 43-strong panel on HSBC’s list.
If lenders continue to limit the number of solicitors on their panels, will this not inevitably mean less choice for the consumer (the lender will dictate which firms of solicitors can be instructed, and the consumer’s freedom of choice will be restricted)? Such action may also result in fewer firms with local knowledge in smaller towns and rural locations. I fear it may encourage ‘conveyancing factories’ in central, key towns and cities, which will operate a high-volume/low-cost service on behalf of the lenders. Local specialist knowledge may be lost, with complicated or unusual issues more likely to be overlooked.
Not only this, but being included on a panel is valuable to any firm. If only very limited numbers are being selected, then these chosen few might potentially feel under pressure to represent the lender’s best interests first - possibly at the expense of impartial, independent advice for the consumer.
There is also the prospect that limiting the number of solicitors on lenders panels will add to the demise of the traditional local high street. The smaller independent firms are effectively being pushed out.
HSBC has also been quoted as saying that its panel will ‘spare customers the time and hassle of searching for a firm to do the important conveyancing works’. I wonder what has happened to consumer freedom of choice? Is it right that their lender should choose their solicitor for them?
My firm has been established for over a century and is proud of its client base and local reputation. It will be hard for us and for all similar firms to watch this become diminished by lenders who warn consumers that if they appoint their own lawyer they will effectively have to pay twice by paying the lender’s legal fees as well.
I fear the banks are being shortsighted. Their actions will ultimately restrict choice and opportunity. They will restrict business, and have the potential to create cartels generating a juggernaut of future difficulties for consumers and solicitors alike.
Jeannette Kemp, Northwich, Cheshire