This article puts forward the case for customer awareness so that people make informed choices. In an online world, the use of certain divorce and will writing services carries risks as well as benefits.
The following article from Sarah Higgins, partner, and David Wells-Cole, senior associate at Charles Russell Speechlys, focuses on the state of regulation and the pitfalls thereof, of legal services in the UK. This relates to areas such as online divorce and writing wills, for example. People, the authors say, must fully appreciate the risks they run from taking these routes.
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Consumers may, understandably, be increasingly driven by convenience and cost-efficiency in their decisions when making any purchase, but in the context of legal services they are often unaware of the potential risks involved.
The recent inquiry conducted by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) into online divorce and will writing services shows the dangers of embracing low cost and unregulated legal services.
This conversation is not new, but has come to the fore in response to alarming consumer complaints, often accompanied by significant financial losses, where individuals have fallen victim to misleading practices and excessive charges.
While the allure of budget-friendly legal advice may be enticing, it is high time for consumers to be well-informed about the potential pitfalls of relying on unregulated services and to understand the broader implications of these choices.
“Quickie” (but risky) divorce
A focal point of the CMA's scrutiny is online divorce services, due to concerns over misleading claims about the simplicity of the process and the prices, and an inadequate quality of service. It is important to differentiate between the divorce process itself and financial claims.
While the divorce process itself is relatively straightforward, consumers still need to understand the implications of getting divorced. If firms undertake the divorce process on behalf of consumers, it is only right that they do so efficiently and effectively to avoid delay and additional stress. Often, those undergoing divorce are grappling with emotional turmoil, and wanting to speed up the process inexpensively could lead them to rush things without consideration.
Sorting out finances can be complicated with various factors to be taken into account. This complexity means that quick and inexpensive services may not provide consumers with the nuanced, comprehensive advice which is so often required in such situations.
However, with the demise of legal aid, it is hard for people to be able to afford legal advice. Furthermore, a recent case which involved a litigation lender not being paid has made some lenders more circumspect about offering litigation loans.
The increase in litigants in person has contributed to the delays in the court system, which affects all court proceedings. There are pro bono services in certain parts of the country, but legal advice centres have suffered from a lack of funding. Unless funding for the family justice system is addressed properly, consumers will inevitably turn to “quickie” divorce services, therefore increasing the need for them to be sufficiently regulated.
Where there’s a will…
The CMA's focus extends to will writing services, an area that has witnessed a notable increase in consumer complaints stemming from increasing pressure to opt for alternative service providers.
The number of online alternatives to conventional law firms offering quicker and cheaper will writing services has steadily increased over the past decade. Advisors with no qualifications are able to provide such services as there are currently no restrictions in the UK on who can legally draft wills. But often this leads to unscrupulous practices.
From costs being charged by alternative advisors increasing unexpectedly, to inappropriate clauses emerging, more vulnerable clients have even been found to be subject to coercion and some wills have been known to simply disappear. In these unfortunate cases, customers (or their families) can find that there is very little that they can do.
Wills are often put in place and subsequently forgotten, which must particularly be the case if there is no ongoing duty of care between the advisor and customer. This can mean that issues arise only following the client’s death, with reports of rogue will writers turning out also to be executors and trustees (and charging a percentage of the total estate as a fee). Recent cases demonstrate not only the risks of unregulated services but also the importance of proper advice on which consumers can depend.
Overall, the CMA's investigation should serve as a wake-up call, hopefully prompting consumers to reevaluate their reliance on unregulated legal services, whether it is for divorce proceedings or will writing.
Similarly, the legal community hopes that the investigation will be a warning for unregulated services and providers that so often take advantage of vulnerable clients, who simply aren’t aware of the precautions they should be taking.
By advocating for consumer awareness, we hope to support a culture in which individuals are empowered to make informed choices, seek qualified legal assistance, and ultimately safeguard their interests.