Losing the plot: Residential conveyancing complaints and their causes

Has the Legal Ombudsman opened a can of worms with his recent report ‘Losing the plot: Residential conveyancing complaints and their causes’?

Part of the problem is that conveyancers have no idea how difficult or complicated a transaction might be until they are part way through it. As an ex-conveyancer, with 25 years’ experience at the coal face, I think I have encountered pretty much every problem there is. Having said that, a very modest number of transactions are straightforward, with a clear title, no mortgages to deal with, no alterations to the property and clear searches.

Quoting for conveyancing work without seeing any paperwork is like taking a car to the garage and asking the mechanic to provide a ‘fixed fee’ for servicing it (and carrying out any unexpected repairs) without allowing them to lift the bonnet. They just wouldn’t do it.

It has baffled me for years as to why there is not more helpful information provided to buyers and sellers at the outset of all transactions. Surely a free helpful guide, perhaps available in estate agents offices, could be produced by someone; the Law Society, the Legal Ombudsman or even the Legal Services Board?

Many conveyancers explain in their client care letter (are some too long to be easily understood?) that local searches don’t cover neighbouring properties and that buyers should check their plans carefully. But how many people can really tell if the boundaries on the ground actually reflect the drawn boundaries on the plan? I remember back in 1976 visiting properties with my conveyancing supervisor and not just checking plans but looking for alterations and taking measurements. Very few, if any, mistakes were made.

To add to the problems, despite the fact that there are many more registered titles than unregistered titles, conveyancing has become slower and more complicated (tedious?) than ever, caused partly by the introduction of too much red tape and bureaucracy. Conveyancers can no longer use their experience and knowledge to ‘take a view’ on a particular issue. Everything, no matter how small or insignificant, now needs reporting to lenders, fixing and/or insuring.

Conveyancers are now understandably frightened of their own shadows.

Not all conveyancing factories are bad (although in my experience, few are great) and not all high street conveyancers are good. The problem for the consumer is sorting the wheat from the chaff.

Another thorny issue is referral fees. Again not all firms who pay referral fees are poor. It partly depends on the amount of fee being paid versus the conveyancing fee being charged. I remember a solicitor in Bristol in the ‘80s who used to take an estate agent out to lunch every month and hand over a brown paper bag, containing varying amounts of cash, depending on how many transactions introduced by that estate agent had completed that month. Yes, the method and secrecy involved was dubious but did it make the solicitor a bad conveyancer, no, he was quite the opposite.

I used to receive a lot of work from a particular estate agent (with no referral fee being paid) until they had new owners. I was then told I would not be sent any more new work unless I paid a referral fee. I declined the kind offer and the flow of new work pretty much stopped overnight, except of course for complicated cases, or cases involving the agents themselves, their friends or family, because the referral fee paying conveyancer was not up to scratch!

The LeO has produced another document: ‘Using a conveyancing lawyer: Ten helpful tips’. One tip is to be wary of using an online or call centre conveyancing service if “your conveyancing transaction is not straightforward”. The problem is, as explained earlier, until the transaction is underway no one really knows how complicated a transaction may or may not be.

Surely when it comes to one of the biggest purchases of your life it is better to err on the side of caution and assume that the transaction might be tricky?

Another tip is ”to be wary of referrals and recommendations”. Exactly how will the average buyer or seller know if the referral is to a good firm or to a poor one simply paying the highest referral fee? I am sure that the Legal Ombudsman means well and the tips are a step in the right direction but they only scratch the surface.

In order for the LeO to get a much clearer picture of how difficult conveyancing really is might I suggest that he, or a colleague, spend the week before Christmas in the offices of a busy conveyancing firm?

That would truly be a baptism of fire.

Today's Conveyancer