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CMA investigates online divorce, will-writing and other legal services

Date:7 AUG 2023
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The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is keen to hear about people’s experiences with firms offering these services, over concerns that not all are complying with consumer protection law.

When it comes to legal services, customers now have many alternatives to the conventional law firms on the high street, especially for services where the adviser does not need to be a solicitor. Alternative providers very often offer services that are innovative and convenient for consumers, and that can be cheaper too. But where they are unregulated, it becomes all the more important that normal consumer protection laws are complied with and, if necessary, enforced.

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Initial research by the CMA has identified three main areas of concern involving potential risk to customers and possible breaches of consumer protection law:

  • Will-writing - anyone can legally write a will and, although many are drafted by regulated lawyers, will-writing itself is not a regulated service. Concerns include:
    • consumers being misled by advertising which offers an extremely low initial fee for advice but does not indicate that final costs can increase significantly
    • the use of potentially unfair contract terms, such as exclusions of liability, failure to provide cancellation rights, and terms which automatically appoint the firm as executor (often for a fee)
    • reports of pressure selling and coercion of vulnerable customers.
  • Pre-paid probate plans - a new development in the market where customers pay set fees upfront for probate (which is the legal process of managing someone’s estate when they die). They do so in the hope that, following their death, their families will not be required to pay anything else. Concerns include:
    • pressure selling techniques being used on elderly and other vulnerable people
    • lack of transparency about what costs are covered
    • plans that are unnecessary or fail to serve their purpose, leading to delays in the probate process and bereaved relatives being left unable to settle bills or sell property
    • lack of customer awareness that their money may not be adequately protected, even if held in trust.
  • Online divorce - these so-called ‘quickie’ divorce services have grown in popularity since the covid-19 lockdown. Concerns include:
    • misleading claims about both the simplicity of the process and prices, which leave customers unclear about what they can be helped with or what they are paying for
    • inadequate quality of service, including the firms using the wrong forms, entering incorrect details, sending papers to the court late, and not communicating efficiently with customers.

The CMA is also concerned that, if a company ceases to operate, there is a risk that customers’ money or important documents, such as their will, may be lost.

Sarah Cardell, Chief Executive of the CMA, said: "These services are essential to people, often at the most challenging times in their lives. The CMA is aware that rising living costs mean people are watching their spending, so shopping around for a more affordable option is attractive and sometimes a necessity. These may not be frequent purchases, but they are life-changing. That’s why it’s so important that we investigate so that people can select the right legal service for them – for divorce or probate or will-writing – with confidence. It’s essential that firms get the basics right, including complying with general consumer law which applies to all traders. Customers must get a fair deal."

Read more here.