A new code of practice for non-lawyer will-writers which has been approved by the Office of Fair Trading is ‘without teeth’, probate solicitors have warned.
The OFT approved a new code of practice drawn up by the Institute of Professional Willwriters (IPW) last week.
The OFT approval came as the Scottish government indicated last week that it would seek to introduce compulsory regulation of non-lawyer will-writers.
Under the new code of practice, IPW members will have to pass an entrance exam and complete ongoing professional training. They will be obliged to provide consumers with a minimum seven-day cooling off period, and complete work within strict time frames agreed with the client.
The code also gives consumers access to an independent redress scheme, and provides protection for any money paid by clients in advance, if the work is not completed.
The IPW’s 190 members make up an estimated 20% of all the UK’s will-writing businesses. Members will now be able to use the OFT Approved code logo on business advertising and literature.
Helen Clarke, chair of the Law Society’s wills & equity committee, said she applauded all attempts to improve standards and safeguard the public.
‘But a code of conduct is only as good as it can be enforced, and this code lacks serious sanctions. An IPW member who is expelled for misconduct can just carry on writing wills regardless,’ she said.
Clients’ long-term interests would not be protected by the new code, Clarke added, because if a will-writing company went bankrupt, there would be no safety net. ‘When a law firm folds, the Law Society intervenes and the profession takes on the cost. The IPW code contains no such provision.’
Patricia Wass, chair of the Law Society’s probate section, said that the public did not always recognise the difference between a trained and qualified solicitor and a will-writer. She said: ‘Tax planning, assets held overseas, older people cohabiting – these are all parts of the complexity of modern life that can’t be learned on a short course of training. It’s a lifetime’s work, even for solicitors.’
Wass added that she supported the Scottish government’s decision to table an amendment to the Legal Services (Scotland) bill to introduce compulsory regulation of non-lawyer will-writers. She said she urged Westminster to adopt the same approach.
Shefali Talukdar, head of private client at Manchester firm Clough & Willis, said the IPW code is 'without teeth and lacks meaningful sanctions'. She added: ‘Only 20% of will-writers are members of IPW – which means 80% won’t be subject to the new code of practice. But it’s a step in the right direction.’
Society of Trust & Estate Practitioners chief executive David Harvey said: ‘Having a quality code of conduct is a good start, but we need to ensure consumers are fully protected. That means professional will-writers should be subject to both rigorous examination and a meaningful regulatory scheme.’
IPW chairman Paul Sharpe said: ‘It is crucially important that consumers receive the highest standard of service from properly trained and qualified professionals. With IPW’s OFT-approved code, consumers can tell at a glance that businesses will provide them with the highest standards.’
A Law Society spokeswoman said: ‘While a code of conduct is important in providing quality assurance, anything short of regulation is not providing the most appropriate safeguards for the consumer.
‘The consumer needs to be protected and know that any person writing their will is adequately trained, insured, protected against dishonesty, has a complaints and disciplinary mechanism in place, and remedies are available when needed.
‘These are all key elements that form part of the solicitors’ regulatory model. Solicitors have the training, knowledge and protections in place to ensure that consumers are provided with a professional service, with safeguards to protect the consumer in place. Until will-writing becomes a regulated activity, the same standards cannot be guaranteed by all will-writers.’