CMA praises advancements in legal sector, but more can be done

SWW call for enhanced consumer protection in CMA draft guidance response

The Society of Will Writers Professional Standards Board has submitted their response to the Competition and Markets Authority’s consultation on draft guidance for unregulated legal services providers and have said that they are “concerned” that it does not go far enough in addressing the consumer protection issues.

The CMA launched the consultation recently in response to its investigation into will writing, online divorce, and pre-paid probate. The deadline for responses is 5 p.m. on 13th June 2024.

Their response states that it does not address two key areas with “sufficient vigour”. The PSB highlights that many firms operating in the unregulated will-writing space voluntarily adhere to codes of conduct through membership in professional bodies such as the Society of Will Writers, The Institute of Professional Will Writers, and The Society of Trust and Estate Practitioners. These bodies enforce strict standards, including robust complaints handling policies, which help mitigate the risks of misleading practices.

However, the PSB expresses concern over firms that choose not to join any of these voluntary bodies, suggesting they are more likely to engage in unethical practices. To address this, the PSB proposes that the CMA should require all will-writing practitioners to align with one of these professional organisations. Such mandatory membership would ensure adherence to high standards and reduce the incidence of misleading practices.

A significant gap identified in the CMA’s guidance is the lack of effective financial redress mechanisms for consumers dealing with unregulated practitioners.

The PSB advocates for the introduction of a genuine redress scheme, similar to the Legal Ombudsman’s service available to clients of regulated legal practitioners.

The PSB also calls for clearer guidelines on pricing practices. It criticises the prevalent practice of quoting prices excluding VAT and recommends that practitioners should display VAT-inclusive prices to avoid misleading consumers.

What’s more, the PSB addresses concerns over prepayment of services, noting that while prepayment can reduce administrative costs and benefit consumers, it becomes problematic when accompanied by mis-selling or poor service. The PSB suggests that the CMA provide more detailed guidance on acceptable prepayment practices.

The response raises concerns about the guidance’s recommendation that unregulated practitioners clearly state their unregulated status. The PSB argues that this could unfairly portray their services negatively. Instead, it suggests emphasising the competence and insurance protections offered by professional membership bodies.

Lastly, the PSB critiques the guidance on disclaimers, advocating for clearer language to prevent misuse while acknowledging that disclaimers can serve legitimate purposes if used correctly.

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