Administration of estates is a complex procedure. Obtaining the necessary information, preparing documentation, obtaining a Grant of Administration, paying all necessary taxes and debts and distributing the assets can be a lengthy and costly process. There is also risk of mistakes, which may significantly harm the beneficiaries. For example, the assets may be distributed incorrectly and it may not be possible to recover them later.
How would a client be protected in such a case? Of course, if the work is done by a solicitor, such risks are minimal. A solicitor would be covered by an appropriate insurance policy and subject to strict control and regulations by professional bodies. The problem arises when such work is undertaken by unregulated providers. Although probate is a reserved activity, its definition is limited to obtaining the Grant. The administration of an estate is not reserved, therefore exposing the client to a higher risk with no appropriate redress other than general consumer protection.
The question has been raised again and again whether this situation is satisfactory. This prompted a report by the Legal Services Board as to legal services regulations. It was questioned whether the list of reserved activities should be extended in order to give consumers appropriate protection and impose a minimum level of regulatory obligations on providers.
There is an argument that, although unregulated, certain organisations providing probate services have wide experience in the area due to high volume of work they undertake, which would make them as competent and safe as a solicitor. It is also submitted that reserving particular activities to solicitors would have a negative impact on competition in the industry. This may be a fair comment. However, the main focus here is the idea that legal services market must work for consumers. As the Legal Service Consumer Panel found, most individuals are not able to assess the quality of providers. In this case, the claimed level of expertise becomes irrelevant.
In the view of the above, the Legal Services Board pointed out that estate administration should be brought within the scope of reservation, since the consumer detriment reported would justify this. It appears that the discussion is on the right track and there may be potential changes which would allow better consumer protection. In the meantime, entrusting estate administration to a solicitor will guarantee the quality of service, high level of protection and peace of mind.