Just Like That? Should LeO be giving advice based on impressions?

Yesterday I registered a concern about the Legal Ombudsman’s second thematic report where conveyancing factories were singled out for approbium.  LeO’s press officer kindly responded to the concerns raised.  My concerns are not much assuaged.

Firstly this is said:

The report is based on our Chief Ombudsman’s experience of complaints regarding residential conveyancing and the fact that he has seen an increasing amount of complaints relating to ‘fixed fee’ and ‘no move no fee’ agreements. It is therefore evidence based as a result of being informed by first-hand experience, even if this not necessarily statistically demonstrated.

I could critique this statement but I won’t because it does not answer my main question which was on what basis does LeO single out conveyancing ‘factories’ for concern?

The report tries to convey a sense of scale by figuratively describing ‘conveyancing factories’ when referring to volume conveyancers i.e. larger firms that tend to provide automated services like those described above. Essentially, they focus on offering services cheaply and conveniently and often online rather than face to face as was traditionally the case.

What we should notice here is the uncertainties as to what is meant by factories. They are described ‘figuratively’ (meaning, I think, metaphorically or symbollically). They tend to, but do not necessarily  provide automated services, they are cheap (most conveyancers are – in relative and historic terms  – cheap), they are (for shame) convenient.  They often, but do not always, provide services online.  So the definition is hazy, perhaps understandably so.  The real concern I have is in the next statement:

Comparing traditional firms with this new breed of firm wouldn’t necessarily bring any clarity to the argument we are putting forward as such large scale entities are still only just entering the market.”

Firstly, I am a bit doubtful about its  accuracy.  Solicitors have been complaining about conveyancing factories in the Gazette for quite a few years.  But let us assume it is correct. If it is so, then a rise in complaints associated with high volume providers of conveyancing services might be because they service high volumes of consumers.

Let me illustrate the point with some numbers.  Imagine that there are 1,000,000 conveyances done in one year. In 2011 all of those were done, let us fantasise, by small practices.  Let us imagine the complaints rate is 1%. In 2011 there would be 10,000 complaints from those firms.  Now let us imagine that in 2012 there are the same number of conveyances, but this time half of them are done by one high volume provider of conveyancing called Pileemhigh & Sellemcheap.  Let is assume the complaints rate for small firms and P&S is still 1%.  LeO would see 5,000 complaints from small firms and 5,000 complaints from P&S.  The increase in problems associated with high volume providers appears dramatic but is in fact nothing to do with P&S being a high volume producer or being worse than small firms.  It is simply caused by them having a high volume of clients.

The significance of the words, “Comparing traditional firms with this new breed of firm wouldn’t necessarily bring any clarity to the argument” should also be emphasised.  They have singled out large firms for criticism but appear to be saying they have not compared them with traditional or small firms.  Indeed, they come perilously close to saying the category of large and small has no meaning: “deciding what constitutes small, large, traditional, new etc is no easy task.”  Yet they have based a significant their thematic report in drawing just such a distinction.

May be this would not matter, but they also advise and seek to inform consumer choices based on the findings.

The way we purchase legal services is changing. Ten years ago you’d probably see a local solicitor on your high street, often in an office located above a shop. But things have moved on. Legal services are now also available online or through call centres. These modern alternatives might look more cost effective – since they have lower overheads by offering remote services – but they might also be based at the other end of the country.

However, this type of service delivery is more likely to work if your conveyancing transaction is straight forward without any particular issues. You may be taking a risk if anything unusual, or unexpected, crops up during the transaction. The individual responsible for your case may not have the same qualifications or experience as the lawyer on your local high street, which could mean that the advice you get may not be as informed as you’d like it to be.

Choose a method of service delivery which suits you. One size won’t fit all, but you need to be comfortable with the method of service delivery offered by your lawyer.

Now that advice may be right, or it may be wrong, but the evidence provided so far does not provide a basis for saying it and there is a risk consumers are being misinformed.

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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One Response to Just Like That? Should LeO be giving advice based on impressions?

  1. Pingback: The devil is always in the detail | Louise Restell

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