When I was interviewed to become a member of the Consumer Panel, back in 2009, I remember being asked what should be early priority areas for the Panel’s work. There was one area I was absolutely clear about – and I think so was virtually every other candidate interviewed – and that was will writing.
Four years on and despite countless examples and evidence of poor quality wills and poor sales practice, the Government has today rejected calls for will writing to be subject to statutory regulation. This is both sad and disappointing news for consumers and leaves me wondering exactly what evidence do you need to get a decision in favour of regulation?
Because this has been four years of ongoing consumer detriment and a level of evidence of harm that you just can’t argue with. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve given presentations and used will writing as an example of two things: the need for regulation, and with it consumer protection, and the acute challenges facing consumers when it comes to judging the quality of legal services. Will writing is an activity where consumers report high levels of satisfaction, around 90% in our Consumer Impact Report. But in our research report, published back in July 2011, a panel of expert assessors failed a staggering 20% of a sample of wills prepared by solicitors and will writing companies because they failed to meet client needs, or in some instances were actually deemed not legally valid.
Today’s response from Government shows that it has not been prepared to listen to either consumers or industry who themselves are not satisfied with the status quo. This is also the industry that has already expressed doubt about the likely effectiveness of any self regulation option.
And what message does this send to those who are already suffering the consequences of poor quality wills, poor sales practices, who have no protection to fall back on? Over the last year we’ve been working closely with the Legal Ombudsman, pushing them to switch on a voluntary jurisdiction and I’m pleased the consultation on this will be starting in the summer. But whilst this could offer a temporary solution of sorts – for both will writing and estate administration – it’s still unlikely to be a quick solution in reality.
The mantra of better regulation is not, and should never be, a disguise for deregulation dogma. And self regulation is not just some poor relation of statutory regulation, a safety blanket that you just try out to see if it might work. Surely consumers deserve better than a ‘suck it and see’ approach to regulation?
Better regulation is about a balanced and proportionate response that never loses sight of improving consumer outcomes. Today’s announcement is not this and as a result consumers will continue to suffer harm.