Probate challenges

 In Probate

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Most firms conducting probate work continue to be busy despite the recession although converting enquiries into confirmed cases is increasingly challenging as personal representatives look keenly at prices and levels of service. What follows represents recent additional challenges in this area:

Probate Broker seeks removal of an executor

Final Duties is probate referral company owned by Mr Walker. He is funding a test case to remove a company appointed as executor, on the grounds of overcharging. The company are charging 1.75% of the estate (which equates to £7,662) and supposedly a quote through Final Duties would mean a charge of less than half that price.

Mr Walker is quoted in This is Money (18 July 2009) as saying that Banks and solicitors ‘control 88% of the probate market, earn up to £1.25 billion a year in fees, half of which is made up of overcharging.’ yet this case involves a company called Will Writers.

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How does your firm charge for probate cases? How many quotes are you invited to make which are not converted into a new client? Do you know why? Is it only on price?

There are some helpful comments and ideas by both Robert Mowbray and Robert Holland on my website who each address how to measure profitability and why you should consider the profitability of each matter not just the work type generally or the firm overall.

Questions of price and service delivery will not go away but only increase so it is up to each probate practitioner to assess what it actually costs to complete the average probate case in their practice and how that process could be improved to squeeze out cost and yet provide even better customer service. Know where you can shave pounds off your estimate and what factors would cause you to quote a higher fee. Monitor what works and what does not and be bold not hesitant in your charges.

So often we never actually ask the prospect for the business. Learn more about the art of converting sales enquiries into real business by taking a look at Ian Cooper’s series on marketing on my website, in particular take a look at the Practice Management section and his piece entitled “Marketing to Private Clients (3) – Convert Existing Opportunities/Enquiries Into Profitable Business”.

Office of Legal Complaints

The Legal Complaints Service attends to complaints about solicitors but before long there will be one overarching legal complaints service as part of the implementation of the Legal Services Act 2007. It will be known as the Office of Legal Complaints and it will have powers to investigate not just complaints made by clients about the delivery of probate services but will have power to investigate complaints made by ‘a beneficiary of the estate or trust in question’ about a solicitor where the services to which the complaint relates were provided by the solicitor in his capacity as a personal representative or trustee or to a person acting as personal representative or trustee.

In other words, even though the executors are all solicitors the Office of Legal Complaints will have the power to investigate complaints made by a beneficiary. At present complaints made by residuary beneficiaries are investigated but no compensation can be awarded to them if the solicitor’s service is inadequate. In future it may be possible to make direct awards in favour of the complainant.

It is therefore a sensible time to review your level of service against the requirements of Rule 2 of the Solicitors Code of Conduct (available on the Solicitor’s Regulation Authority web site). Is your level of service ‘fair and reasonable’ against that standard?

Challenging a non-contentious bill

With effect from 11 August 2009 the Solicitors’ (Non-Contentious Business) Remuneration Order 2009 comes into force abolishing the remuneration certificate procedure. Given that final bills in probate may be presented sometime after the start of the case (depending on whether your firms always issues final bills or prefers to issue interim bills and only one final bill at the end of the estate) note the change applies to all bills presented after that date.

This is significant because before bringing court proceedings to recover non-contentious costs we were required to inform the client in writing of the right to a remuneration certificate. For most firms this meant including the information on the back of their final invoices.

The new 2009 Order does not contain any information requirements for clients but instead these requirements have partially been included in a new professional rule, which for now is ‘emergency rule’ 2.08.

Under the emergency rule you must inform the client in writing of their rights in relation to having the bill assessed by the court under ss 70-72 Solicitors Act 1974 and inform them of your entitlement to charge interest on the outstanding amount in accordance with article 5 of the 2009 Order.

The prescribed time for challenging a bill is three months after the delivery of the bill or any lesser time specified in writing to the client (which cannot be less than one month). We are now told to treat a complaint about a bill in the same manner as a complaint about any other aspect of our service and be willing to provide a detailed narrative account of how the bill arose so that the client can understand how the costs were incurred.

© Gill Steel, LawSkills Ltd. 2009

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