Complaints about residential conveyancing have surged 25% in the last year, latest figures have revealed.
One in five complaints to the Legal Ombudsman service now relates to conveyancing, making it the most complained about area of law. The ombudsman received 1,500 complaints about this issue in 2013/14, compared with 1,200 the previous year, with more than £800,000 recovered for wronged clients.
Disclosing the figures, the LeO warned that the housing bubble may be forcing lawyers to rush through purchases and leave themselves open to more complaints.
The increase has come at a time when business secretary Vince Cable has warned of a ‘raging housing boom’ in London and the south-east – an area which has yielded more legal complaints in recent months than any other in England and Wales.
Many of the complaints relate to stamp duty land tax (SDLT) – paid when buying residential property valued above £125,000.
Chief legal ombudsman Adam Sampson said there is concern that lawyers are sacrificing quality of service to keep up with demand.
‘It is concerning to see complaints from house buyers on the rise again. An improved housing market will inevitably be partly responsible – creating pressure through higher volumes of work – but I suspect there are a number of causes including procedural issues within firms and in some cases even fraudulent activity.
‘Unfortunately, it is consumers who are paying the price.’
He added: ‘People deserve better and I want lawyers to ensure they aren’t leaving clients in the lurch. In the meantime anyone buying a house should seek confirmation of any payments entrusted to their lawyer before considering it a done deal.’
The ombudsman has published a free consumer guide to stamp duty, which includes a fact sheet for lawyers on good practice.
Law Society deputy vice-president Jonathan Smithers said: ‘House-buying transactions amount to billions of pounds a year but out of more than two million residential instructions in England and Wales, only 0.07% resulted in a complaint to the ombudsman.
‘As one of the most common legal services members of the public use, during what can be a stressful time, we want house-buyers to get the best possible service from their solicitor.’
The Council for Licensed Conveyancers has said it is pressing for system-wide changes to help ensure compliance with SDLT payment and is working with HMRC and regulatory partners.
In a statement, the CLC added: ‘Client protection, and the ability to make good losses that clients may have suffered in those few cases when the worst happens, are our priorities.
‘It is important to remember that of the hundreds of thousands of transactions each year only a very small number will be affected by this but in those cases the impact on individual house-buyers is very considerable.’
The organisation said it has ‘rigorous standards’ in place and is monitoring to ensure that it can uncover and deal with non-payment of SDLT.