As the Legal Ombudsman raises the alarm about online will-writers, Georgina Harris explains why attractively cheap deals could turn ugly in the future
A new report by the nation's law watchdog, the Legal Ombudsman, slams the increasing number of online 'legal services' firms that pop up only to vanish with customers' money - or leave clients with worthless paperwork for their most important life decisions.
The report, which, reveals the public's complaints about the legal profession that the Ombudsman has received since it opened in 2010, highlights the serious trouble often faced by those buying legal services online. Unlike lawyers, who work to professional standards, online will-writing firms don't need a single qualification to offer their services. Many people, attracted by low prices, click on a bargain, convincingly legal-looking logo, behind which hides an entirely unqualified and unregulated firm.
The Ombudsman cites the case of Mr and Mrs T, who sent a cheque for over £1,500 to a will-writer they found online. Not only is this double what a decent lawyer charges for a family will, when the T's precious paperwork arrived, they saw "a standard document with a few minor personal details inserted". When the Ts complained that "they could have done [it] themselves by getting a pack from a stationers" (WH Smith, £10), they received no response. As an unregulated firm, the Ombudsman can't help. The Ts are left with no valid will, and, in any case, a lot less money for their old age.
"Phoenix" firms, which the Ombudsman says have increased in number, "close and re-open as different structures, leaving the fall out for their individual customers". As the Ombudsman points out, regardless of whether it decides a customer has been cheated - through the non-appearance of a will, for instance, or for a badly drafted one - if the firm has disappeared, so does the customers' money.
The Ombudsman says, with admirable reservation, that buying online "comes with its own set of specific issues for consumers, not least when something goes wrong."
Ironically, this report comes at a time when old-age planning and will-making are ever more essential to all our lives. Houses are worth more, inheritance tax affects ordinary people as well as the rich, and the eye-watering costs of care need careful thought - not to mention ensuring proper protection and care for those in later life. It might come as a surprise to realise that in the UK none of this can be done informally - set legal wording is required for everything from gifting trinkets in your will to naming the relations who will take care of you and/or your money in case of, say, medical emergency.
Savvy people congratulate themselves on preparing for their dotage well in advance - but as the Ombudsman points out: "the nature of legal services is that, usually, the flaw in the service is not apparent until the end - or many years later." Is an 'online discount' worth ending up with an invalid Power of Attorney when you are bedbound and unable to pay medical bills, or your children finding out a typing error took their shares in the family business? While the Ombudsman and the Law Commission work out how to deal with unscrupulous or incomptetent firms, a lawyer remains the only safe bet.
Georgina Harris, Law Donut editor