Residential conveyancing is the source of around one-quarter of the Legal Ombudsman's work. Most complaints relate to:
- failing to advise clients properly
- failing to follow clients' instructions
- inadequate or inaccurate cost information.
What causes these complaints?
The regular additions to online listings of sold property prices hint at the first of two main reasons: it's the inevitable result of the sheer quantity of work crossing the desks of the UK's property solicitors and licensed conveyancers. Initial figures from HMRC suggest that there were 102,330 residential and 11,230 non-residential property transactions in December 2018 alone. If even a tiny fraction of these transactions gives rise to complaints of substandard or negligent work on the part of conveyancers, that still equates to a considerable quantity of work for the Legal Ombudsman, and a good deal of stress and unnecessary expense for various unfortunate buyers and sellers.
Fortunately, almost half of all conveyancing complaints are resolved via informal methods. In other words, the conveyancer themselves, or their firm, is able to remedy the situation to the satisfaction of the complainant.
If you need to engage the services of a conveyancer, what sort of problems should you be watching out for?
1. Delays in the conveyancing process that result in the client either losing their property sale or purchase (or both).
2. Inadequate advice on problematic issues. This can cover a wide spectrum but leasehold properties are particularly prone to causing problems during the conveyancing process. As a result, if you're selling or buying a leasehold home, it is prudent to ensure your conveyancer has adequate experience of similar transactions.
3. Boundary issues.
4. Charges relating to the property's previous owner remaining on it even after sale.
5. Billing anomalies. These can come in several guises. For example, unfortunately it is not unknown for a firm to offer to complete work on a no move, no deal basis, and then to present a bill even when the client's sale and/or purchase falls through. Other firms may have offered to do the work for a fixed fee, only to charge extra on top of that agreed amount. Even arrangements where the client has agreed to estimated bills are not immune from problems if the conveyancer does not provide adequate notification of increases.
As a general rule, most of the problems outlined above can be resolved without the client incurring significant financial loss. If you believe you have a complaint that's not so easy to resolve, make sure you have full knowledge of all the relevant facts before taking matters further. In other words, ask yourself whether you are really sure that fault lies with your legal adviser, rather than an error or oversight of your own.
If you are convinced that the fault was not yours, what should you do?
As a first step, raise your concerns with the conveyancing firm. Do this via their own client complaints procedure. You should have received details of this as part of your client engagement literature. If not, ask for it. Don't forget to provide copies of all relevant evidence.
Hopefully, the firm will offer you a satisfactory solution. If they do not, request a letter stating that your complaint remains unresolved.
Your next step depends on the substance of your complaint. If it relates to costs or inadequate service, contact the Legal Ombudsman. If it concerns alleged dishonesty or if the firm is not following its own complaints procedure, contact the Solicitors Regulation Authority or the Council for Licensed Conveyancers, as appropriate.
Frauds and scams
A second significant source of conveyancing complaints relates not to poor service or negligence but to frauds and scams. Unfortunately, these are a growing industry in many walks of life - and conveyancing is no exception. Indeed, the large sums of money involved (as evidenced by sold property prices just about anywhere in the country) seem to act as a lure to fraudsters - and this is evidenced by over 700 fraudulent conveyancer scams that the Solicitors Regulation Authority detected in 2016.
Consequently, it is sensible to be on your guard at all stages of the conveyancing process. You may think that engaging a reputable firm will mean you avoid any problems - and in most cases, this will be true. However, bear in mind that fraudsters actively target reputable businesses. Sometimes they manage to do this by inveigling an accomplice into a job at the target firm. On other occasions, they may bribe an existing member of staff. Whatever the method, the result is usually the same: somebody loses their money.
To avoid falling victim, watch out for:
1. Bank account details given in an email
A growing number of firms and their clients have fallen victim to fraudsters who intercept email communications and replace legitimate bank account details with their own. Such cases are not usually the fault of the legal service provider, with the result that it is the client who may lose both money and property. It is always prudent to confirm bank account details in person or, if this is not practical, in a telephone call or via a letter from the legal adviser's registered office.
2. Identity theft
This can have ramifications that reach far beyond, for example, hacking into a bank account to steal funds from it. Some fraudsters target property owners - often landlords with a portfolio - in order to steal their identity and sell their property. The fraud is usually uncovered when the new owner attempts to register the change of ownership at the Land Registry. Ultimately it is usually this unwitting buyer - who probably made the purchase in cash - who loses out. So far, the numbers who have fallen victim to this kind of fraud are small (50 in 2017), but they are rising. Currently, expensive properties are most at risk. As a landlord, you can protect yourself in two main ways. One is to keep close tabs on your credit report, which is often where the first indications of imminent identity theft can be spotted. The other is to sign up to an alert system offered by the Land Registry (in England and Wales). This will notify you of any changes made that relate to your property. If you're a buyer that has fallen victim to a fraudster, your only recourse may be to take action against one of the legal service providers involved.
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