The CLC’s Stephen Ward on the regulator’s recent review, new probate qualifications and regulation of will writing

The CLC has regulated probate for some time, with Parliament approving their plan to be able to license practitioners who haven’t first qualified as conveyancers in 2015.

According to the latest Legal Services Board report on reviewing the cost of regulation, the Council for Licensed Conveyancers were regulating 64 probate practitioners back in 2011 but LSB were unable to find up to date figures.

Today’s Wills and Probate’s Jane Common spoke to the regulator’s Director of External Relations Stephen Ward about recent developments, including a review of its Handbook and the introduction of new qualifications and new education arrangements.

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The Legal Services Board singled the CLC out for praise in its recent (May 2016) performance review of the eight legal services regulators – that must be gratifying Stephen?

“It was good to see the Legal Services Board recognise, in particular, that our regime allows members to innovate. It’s a great stamp of approval because that’s our mission, really – to be a different kind of regulator. Our purpose isn’t to police the profession and catch them out – it’s to support conveyancers and probate lawyers. People enter the profession to do a good job and we want to aid them in that. An independent survey of CLC lawyers found that three-quarters believe that CLC regulation supports innovation and growth in their business.”

The CLC was born in 1985 so it’s now over three decades old. What do you think it’s achieved in that time?

“A great deal – a lot’s been achieved even just in the three years I’ve been with the CLC. That’s what makes this such an interesting and rewarding job.

“The CLC was set up 30 years ago to break up the solicitors’ monopoly on conveyancing, to give the consumer more choice and to drive down prices. And, while we can’t take all the glory, the CLC’s tailored, specialist regulation of specialist lawyers certainly helped in fulfilling those three objectives.

“We now license over 1200 individuals and 230 entities, servicing around 10-15% of the conveyancing market and 20% of remortgages. And what I believe to be the common factor among all the lawyers that choose CLC regulation is that they are very consumer-focused – that’s what attracts them to our model of regulation. So through our work with lawyers – which, as the Legal Services Board recognised is often very innovative – we are supporting improvements for consumers.”

What do you think consumers want from their conveyancer in this day and age?

“The lawyers who are thriving right now are the ones who are innovating to meet changed client expectations – so, for example, giving their clients access to online portals so they can communicate with them when they get home from work rather than scrabbling to make phone calls during the day. It’s that sort of modern approach that consumers want. At the same time, most people don’t understand the conveyancing process so lawyers have to find simple ways of communicating how it works to them. And that’s what we’re looking at blending at the moment – combining the best use of technology with ensuring that consumers understand the home buying and selling process and aren’t in for any shocks along the way.”
You had a busy year in 2015?

“Yes, we completely overhauled our staffing, moved offices and introduced new IT systems. With all that we massively reduced our cost base and are now in a position where we can cut regulatory fee rates by 20% for firms. We’re consulting on that proposal now and there should be a final announcement in the very near future.”

And 2016?

“Again, we’re busy. We’re renewing our handbook to keep pace with consumer expectation, changes in the marketplace and new risks that have emerged since we last did a major review. Much of the new material is based on research we’ve undertaken with consumers and feedback we’ve had from lawyers too.

“We’re also overhauling our education programme. We were a new profession in the 1980s when the CLC was formed so we had to provide the education to create that profession. Now the profession is more mature we’re passing the delivery of our education to the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) which will recruit a range of frontline providers. Obviously we’ll still be in control of standards of qualification and entry to the profession and we’ll retain that in the future, but there are lots of advantages to the SQA developing our educational offering. There’ll be more students coming through, for one, and we are introducing intermediate qualifications. So as well as training as licensed conveyancers and probate practitioners people can qualify as probate and conveyancing technicians – either on the way to the full qualification or as a stopping off point in itself.

“At the same time we’re developing apprenticeship routes for all our qualifications. Apprenticeships are a great way of broadening the intake, especially in the legal profession which has been a bit stuffy about people who haven’t been to university since it became a graduate profession. We’ve always had a different attitude at the CLC, so conveyancers tend to be from more diverse backgrounds than, say, barristers and solicitors. We want to continue that by tapping all the talent that’s out there in the legal sector – by showing people that conveyancing and probate are areas that offer great, varied careers. Apprenticeships are brilliant for people who perhaps haven’t got on that well with traditional education but are bright and motivated to build a good career for themselves.

“One prerequisite that I think people often overlook but is absolutely vital for probate and conveyancing, is having good people skills. You could be the best lawyer in the land but if you’re not good with people conveyancing probably isn’t for you as it requires empathy and an understanding of the stress home buyers and sellers experience through the moving process. In probate matters of course, you will find yourself dealing with the recently bereaved and will need to take account of that too.”
And you’re now focusing on probate as well?

“We’ve been able to issue add-on probate licenses to Licensed Conveyancers for several years and last year we secured the right to issue stand-alone probate licenses – a great expression of confidence in the CLC regime by Parliament, who gave us the new power through the Deregulation Act. At the moment we regulate a small number of specialist probate firms but we expect to see more – probate is a very fragmented market. We think there’s room for consolidation and for new players doing what conveyancers did, which is entering the field and finding new ways of making the whole process less painful for the consumer. Obviously probate is so sensitive so we believe that specialist probate professionals who work with the consumer at the forefront of their minds will make great strides in the profession – just as consumer-focused conveyancers have.”

And the CLC has changed its name to take account of the new arrivals?

“We’ve changed it slightly so we’re no longer the Council for Licensed Conveyancers – we’re now CLC, the Specialist Property Law Regulator.”

Do you think that government should regulate will writing?

“We were very surprised when government chose not to regulate will-writing in 2013 because it’s a very difficult area – lots of the CLC probate practitioners tell us that they spend a lot of time unpicking problems with poorly written wills. So, yes, we were concerned that the area wasn’t brought into regulation. There’s a whole argument to be had about what should and shouldn’t be a reserved activity in legal services and we think that needs to be debated as the current system is a confusing patchwork, not based on the risks in relation to different services. It isn’t built with much regard for the risks to consumers. Most people who use probate and conveyancing services aren’t acquainted with the legal process and will not be using legal services frequently enough to make well informed choices. They need assistance, assurance and protection.”

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