The regulation of non-lawyer will writers was among measures this week (22 June) agreed by the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee to strengthen consumer protections in the Legal Services (Scotland) Bill. The system for making complaints against new regulators, the protection of the solicitor “brand” and the role of the Scottish Solicitors’ Guarantee Fund were also debated by the committee.
The Society’s long-standing concern about unregulated will writers providing inaccurate, inadequate or overly expensive advice was recognised by the Minister for Community Safety, Fergus Ewing. He highlighted a case where a non-lawyer will writer had driven an elderly client to the bank to pay a £1,000 cash fee for a will, when the cost should be around £100. The minister added that there were cases where advice given had been poor because of a lack of knowledge in areas of tax law or had been based on English law.
In one of the most substantial changes to the bill, the committee agreed an entire chapter of amendments to ensure a “robust regulatory framework” for will writers. As a result, Scotland will be the first jurisdiction in the UK to offer the same protections as those that exist for solicitors’ clients. Those who provide advice free of charge or who prepare their own wills remain unaffected. Committee Convener Bill Aitken said: “This series of amendments plugs an important gap in consumer protection.”
The committee also debated the use of the term “solicitor” and the branding of the firms. It was decided that the licensed legal services providers (LPs) who set up new business structures must have written authority from the Society to use the term "solicitor" to avoid the use of misleading descriptions.
Discussions about the Guarantee Fund continued from last week’s session. Committee members passed an amendment that would allow all LPs access to the fund on paying a contribution. A £1.25 million cap on claims was also approved, an important change that will reduce the risk to the fund. Mr Ewing agreed to further talks with the Society during the summer to address a number of concerns and reach a more considered conclusion on how the fund should work in the future. Further amendments are likely to be brought forwards at stage 3 after the parliamentary summer recess.
Other successful amendments established the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission – rather than Scottish ministers – as the gateway for complaints against approved regulators, which will pay a levy to fund the system. Also, shareholders with a stake of 10% or less in a LP will be exempt from meeting the “fitness for involvement” test, a measure that is intended to avoid unnecessary bureaucracy.Michael Clancy is the Society’s Director of Law Reform