‘Conveyancing factories’ pose a potential risk for housebuyers, the chief ombudsman warns today, saying he is braced for more complaints about services.

A report, ‘Losing the Plot – residential conveyancing complaints and their causes’, says that despite the fall in house sales, residential conveyancing accounted for 17.5% of the 7,500 complaints handled by the ombudsman’s office in the past year, making it the second most complained-about area of law after family.

Adam Sampson, the ombudsman, says: ‘I want to show lawyers the emotional consequences of poor service, which can be devastating, in the hope that we can reduce the amount of complaints in this area.’

The report says that with the drop in volume of work, lawyers should be giving priority to quality. ‘In a market where business is already on the wane, they should be doing everything they can to preserve and enhance their reputations.’

However, the report says that poor-quality legal services are making homebuying more stressful.

Fees higher than the amount quoted, delays and a failure to provide adequate advice or follow instructions are the most common reasons for complaint.

Sampson says the ‘increasingly commoditised automated and competitive’ conveyancing market has resulted in traditional high street firms evolving or being displaced into ‘conveyancing factories’.

Services provided by such operations, where transactions can be handled online or where prices can be fixed from the outset under ‘fixed fee’ or ‘no-move, no-fee’ agreements, come in for particular criticism.

The report acknowledges that such innovative services can be helpful, but warns they are ‘not without risk’. It voices concern that by focusing exclusively on volume, some firms risk failing to provide a reasonable service.

With the arrival of alternative business structures, which allow non-lawyers to manage law firms, the ombudsman says ‘we are bracing ourselves for an increase in automated transactions and fixed-price deals’, which ‘may mean more residential conveyancing complaints’.

Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said the volume of complaints should be put in perspective. 'There are, on average, more than 675,000 property transactions a year. We are talking about 1,300 complaints on conveyancing to the LeO in a year. My point is that the vast majority of solicitors do a good job when it comes to conveyancing.

'However, there is clearly more that can be done to improve the whole conveyancing process from the consumer’s point of view. This is a challenge that those involved in the conveyancing process need to look at, not only those that are subject to the ombudsman’s complaints process - solicitors. We will be working with our Conveyancing Quality Scheme members to improve service standards.'