The Law Society has launched its first recognised quality standard for wills and estate administration. The Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme (WIQS) will open for applications on 31 October, and is aimed at Solicitors Regulation Authority-regulated practices that offer will drafting, probate and estate administration services.
But what evidence is there that this scheme is actually needed? Why is being a solicitor simply not enough? After all, every solicitor receives training in will drafting and the overwhelming majority of solicitors who undertake this work are highly experienced, not to mention the fact that they are regulated and insured, unlike many other service providers.
Consumers who want legal matters to be handled by knowledgeable professionals with consumer guarantees and a duty to put their clients’ interests before their own should surely seek the advice of a solicitor. It seems obvious to most of us that the only prudent choice is to instruct a solicitor to prepare one of the most important documents in life.
But that is the point. What is obvious to us is not obvious to the consumer and the options available to the public are increasing. The Law Society has worked hard to raise awareness among the public about the potential dangers of using unregulated will-writers. Time and time again we have highlighted the problems surrounding probate fraud and the risks to consumers in using an unregulated and unqualified person who has set up as a will-writer. We have warned that, unlike solicitors, will-writers are not robustly regulated by law, and not all are thoroughly insured to protect against risk. Through articles and case studies we have warned that any problems in the drafting of a will has the potential to cause the most profound repercussions for the bereaved.
Our members’ interests were central to our will-writing consumer campaign to persuade the Legal Services Board that will-writing should be a reserved activity. The campaign was promoted heavily during a period of intense lobbying for regulation and involved communication with a selection of target audiences. It resulted in hundreds of national, regional, local and online articles, to the extent that almost every national paper, including weekend titles, publicised the message about the expertise of solicitors in will-writing within a six-month period.
We argued that all those providing wills services should be trained to the same level and subject to uniform regulatory requirements. In February 2012, the Legal Services Consumer Panel threw its weight behind the campaign. However, the lord chancellor announced earlier in the spring that the government would not change the law.
The trouble is that, while our members know the value of their expertise and the clear benefits for choosing them over other service providers, the public are approaching this from a different perspective altogether. Solicitors are operating in a crowded market along with will-writers and a multiplicity of online purveyors. There are a host of other service providers in today’s market. As the law currently stands, anyone can set themselves up as a ‘will-writer’. For consumers to make informed choices, it is important that they are able to distinguish between those that are unregulated, uninsured and untrained, and our members’ practices that specialise in this area and offer a high-quality service. Accreditation will provide these firms with the opportunity to demonstrate to consumers and key stakeholders their commitment to the highest standards of client service.
Research on the use of professional services by consumers is fairly consistent on their expectations in choosing a service provider. The informed consumer is looking to check and verify personal or professional recommendations. Online visibility for the WIQS brand and its association with the representative body, along with an understanding of the scheme, provides reassurance and credibility. Scheme membership ensures that practices have greater visibility to potential clients.
The aim of the scheme is to reinforce set standards of practice and client care when providing will drafting, probate and estate administration services. At the heart of the scheme will be the first Law Society Protocol for wills and estate administration, which provides practical guidelines and recommended best practice at all key stages of the wills and probate process.
The aim of the scheme is to reinforce set standards of practice and client care when providing will drafting, probate and estate administration services.
Law Society accreditation scheme membership is voluntary. So it is notable that so far there have been over a thousand registrations of interest in the scheme. These members are aware that the key audience is the public who use online search engines to help differentiate service quality.
The scheme promotes high standards in legal service provision and ensures that clients are easily able to identify legal practitioners with proven competency in given areas of law. They also ensure that scheme members maintain relevant standards of competency and expertise by means of periodic reselection, reaccreditation and reauthorisation.
This exacting scheme assures consumers who wish to prepare a will or to manage the administration of their estate that they are using a regulated solicitor’s firm
Quality of delivery
Accreditation is a dynamic process and members are actively engaged in shaping and directing the development of each scheme, sharing best practice and contributing to standards. The scheme is all about recognising quality of delivery and service. Our aim is to set scheme members apart from other providers by generating broad recognition of the scheme brand, by the public and those in professions that have an interest in recommending solicitors.
Applicants will be required to undertake training, self-reporting, random audits and annual reviews in order to maintain the new status. Firms with Lexcel and/or CQS accreditation will already have the Core Practice Management Standards (CPMS) in place and will find the application process simpler. We will also take into consideration achievement of accreditation when assessing your application. Firms who hold either Lexcel or CQS accreditation will be eligible for a discounted application fee. The WIQS Toolkit will be published in October to help firms meet the CPMS.
This exacting scheme assures consumers who wish to prepare a will or to manage the administration of their estate – two of the biggest decisions of most people’s lives – that not only are they using a regulated solicitor’s firm but one specifically endorsed for high standards in this area.
Our principal aim will be to promote the scheme online, ensuring understanding of the scheme and the benefits of using a solicitor when drafting a will. Consumer-facing marketing activities will commence from January 2014.
The application form will be available from 30 September and firms will be able to submit their application to the Law Society from 21 October.
Andrew Caplen is vice-president of the Law Society