At the end of last year, the Law Society announced details of its Conveyancing Quality Scheme (CQS), and invited Conveyancing Solicitors to apply for registration under the scheme.
You might wonder why the Law Society has only now set up such a scheme. Surely Solicitors are supposed to provide a quality professional service on all the work they do, including Conveyancing?
Is this just another scheme which any solicitor can join, enabling member firms to display yet another fancy logo on their letterheads?
It should be understood that the Law Society is now just like any other trade organisation, as its former disciplinary functions are now dealt with by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). In the past, the Law Society did encourage Conveyancing Solicitors to use the 'TransAction' scheme and various protocols which it had published which were intended to standardise and streamline the conveyancing process. However, the use of this scheme was voluntary and many Solicitors did not use it, or only adopted parts of it.
Rising complaints from the public and from mortgage lenders
Over the last few years there has been a widespread perception that the public has often not received good service on residential conveyancing work, with many complaints of delays. Many firms have not been transparent on quotes, and clients complain about being presented with substantially higher bills on completion than they were quoted for.
Negligence & Fraud - firms closing down
Of perhaps more concern is the increasing number of firms which have closed down, in many cases because the SRA has had to take action as the firm has been failing to operate properly. Worryingly, cases have been reported where there has been fraud on the part of lawyers. Although clients' money should be safeguarded, it can be extremely frustrating if a firm is wound up in the middle of a transaction. It can also take considerable time to recover losses from a ex-solicitors' indemnity insurers.
Many mortgage lenders have also been affected by negligence or fraud - in some cases Solicitors have failed to register mortgages or property transfers properly, leaving the mortgage unenforceable against the property, or have failed to carry out proper financial checks on clients so that transactions are tainted by money-laundering.
The Conveyancing Quality Scheme
- a new Charter of Quality for the public?
Although solicitors who do shoddy work will probably end up in trouble with the SRA and the new Legal Services Ombudsman, they reflect badly on the majority of Solicitors who do an excellent job.
In order to meet the rising level of criticism, the Law Society has now set up the Quality Conveyancing Scheme. Member firms are required to show that they can provide a high standard of service and probity both to the general public and to mortgage lenders. Solicitors and firms applying for membership must demonstrate that they can meet the standards specified by the Scheme in a number of areas, including not only day-to-day case-handling and staff training but also financial accounting. A major feature of the scheme from the public's point of view is the Client Service Charter.
The Scheme also incorporates a protocol which sets out in detail the steps which Solicitors should take at each step in the course of a transaction, whether acting for buyers or sellers.
Membership of the scheme is voluntary, and not all Solicitors doing Conveyancing work will apply. However it is understood that the Law Society is processing a considerable number of applications, and several have now been approved.
It remains to be seen what effect the scheme will have, and how well it will be policed by the Law Society. Membership is on an annual basis and firms will have to re-apply every year. Renewal will not be automatic, and renewal applications will have to show that firm continue to meet the requirements of the Scheme. Although the Scheme requires member firms to carry out various checks, such as regular file reviews, but these can be done "in-house" and there is no requirement for independent review.
Anyone looking for a Conveyancing Solicitor would be recommended to look for a firm which is a member; although at present many firms' applications will still be being processed. Membership of the Scheme should indicate that the firm will provide a high level of service, and have procedures in place to deal with any complaints that may arise - membership may be pending, so don't necessarily be put off if your Solicitor is not yet accredited.
The Council of Mortgage Lenders, representing the majority of mortgage lenders in the country, has indicated that lenders will not now instruct firms unless they are members of the Scheme. That would make it difficult for non-member firms to carry out residential conveyancing, where the buyer's solicitor will often also be instructed by the lender.
Will it affect Costs?
One effect of the Scheme may be to reduce the number of firms offering very cheap deals. Firms have to provide considerable financial information to the Law Society as part of the application process, so firms which cannot show that they have a sound financial base will be excluded. Meeting the requirements of the Scheme will impose costs on member firms, such as staff training, carrying out case reviews, and general administration, and these costs may result in a rising level of costs for conveyancing work.
Members of the public looking for a Cheap Conveyancing deal should appreciate that is usually worth paying for a professional service.
All things considered, the Conveyancing Quality Scheme is a step in the right direction for Conveyancing Solicitors throughout the UK, but, most importantly, it is another tool for you, the consumer, to find the right Conveyancing for your transaction.