Saturday, 21 September 2013

Solicitors - A cautionary tale (Part 2)

I recently set the scene regarding my introduction to acting as an Executor. One message which came through my induction was that there appeared to be a difference in my understanding of the theory and practice of the legal world. Another message was the need to remember when dealing with a solicitor you are dealing with a seller, who is not necessarily customer focussed. 

I next emailed the solicitor twice. In the first I reiterated I did not want a full service but two comparatively straight forward actions, progressing an Inheritance Tax Return and obtaining of the Grant Probate.

You may well ask why I even felt the need for the solicitor for this? Well the answer is quite straight forward, the obtaining of a Grant of Probate would have required me to be in Belfast on either a Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday but I am only in Northern Ireland on Friday, Saturday and Sunday’s.  I had however, drafted the ITR and explained that to the solicitor.

The first email the solicitor stated:
... we feel that the proposed fee is disproportionate to the work required. If you were happy to provide an al la carte scale of charges or a capped rate for ITR and the Grant of Probate we would however be happy to reconsider? We would also be happy to receive your proposed fees for acting as solicitor in the sale of [the property]?  
A week later no reply.

I also emailed when I became aware of the solicitor having requested the outstanding sums from the Care Home:
I have today received a copy of the [care home] outstanding fees you have obviously requested. 
I want to confirm, as per my email [of date], that neither [my brother] nor I have, as result of receiving your standard buisness terms asked you to act on our behalf. Please carry out no more actions until you have responded to my email of XXX and received instructions from myself to act further. I have made it very clear I am unhappy with the proposed fee of which I was only informed after our meeting on XXX.

A week later, still no reply.

In the first of those emails I made it clear, once again, I did not want a full service, and asked for only prices for only the two specific services I wanted, namely, potential completion of the ITR and secondly, obtaining the Grant of Probate. You will, I trust recall, there was a Will and that it had always been clear we were below the Inheritance Tax Threshold. You will also note I have introduced the potential of increasing the potential work for the solicitor to include subsequent conveyancing if they provide shift from their standard terms of business to something which reflects what I actually wanted.

A brief email with the header "DO NO MORE WORK ON THE ESTATE OF [X]" stirred a response. An email was received apologising for the delays in replying, the justification being that they'd been very busy. Now I don't know what your view is, but mine is that if some is too busy to reply to emails from a potentially paying client, then they're too busy to give me the service I want to receive. 

However, given all that's gone before, what do you think of this waffle:

I am also sorry that the Terms of Business letters were cause for concern. You will appreciate that these documents are designed to be all encompassing and not all the information is relevant for a given matter. I can confirm that I will not continue with any further enquiries or work in connection with your mother’s estate without your authority. I thought to expedite the matter following our discussion only and will happily provide you with all responses, which you will need to progress in any event. We as a firm would only proceed without a returned signed copy of our Terms when there is a clear willingness for us to act, but the client has simply neglected to return the document. I can assure you we would never continue to act in the absence of ongoing instructions or authority. Indeed, the objective of providing clear and detailed Terms is to allow the client an opportunity to raise queries and comprehend the full service available. I appreciate that you consider the matter straightforward, but you will appreciate that the several areas of law (property, succession, tax etc) make this a complex field and there are often a plethora of matters to be given consideration, which are often overlooked by executors who do not take full legal advice. This can often result in difficulties or incorrect information being provided to the relevant authorities – creating unnecessary liability. In some way this may be analogous to ‘self-diagnosis’ in the medical profession and you can appreciate why our Terms are wider in scope than may always be necessary. The true benefit of legal advice in these matters is to ensure that the correct procedures are being followed and the benefit of experience we have in dealing with such matters on a daily basis, is available to the client. 
You will extract from that response that the Terms of Business were never expected to be binding - that's a new one on me. You will also recognise the play on 'the fear factor' i.e. I really should be worried about handling this myself even though many websites, including HMRC, and contacts I had spoken to disagreed. The fee structure had also changed and I could now access support at £100 per hour. Now, you will recall, I had not asked for an hourly rate, and even if I had, how could I possibly police this solicitor in his time management with slippage benefiting him at my cost and someone who appears to overly complicating the process!

Unknown to the solicitor I had now also contacted a solicitor who was not working within, what can loosely be referred to as, the 'Belfast oligopoly'. Now all good purchasing cynics recognise that oligopolies tend to protect sellers and distort prices. So it was no surprise to discover that my non-Belfast solicitor agreed to cap the costs for the full service approximately a third cheaper than the other solicitor. 


  • The encouragement of members of the public to complete a Will created a first mover advantage for solicitors in that they held the original which was necessary for probate;
  • While a solicitor holds original Wills and Deeds you should not be held hostage to them;
  • The T&Cs of solicitors need to be treated with caution;
  • Solicitor fees are open for discussion;
  • Complacency in providers isn't a good sign;
  • Some solicitors feel uncomfortable pricing to suit the customer;
  • Some solicitors try to over-complicate and over-sell (perhaps this is the next PPI and CCP scandal waiting to happen);
  • Oligopolies appear to exist;
  • Solicitors fees can be significantly undercut through spreading you net.
Shall I continue and share what happened next?

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