The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has launched a new investigation into potential consumer law breaches in will writing.
The CMA will also investigate online divorce services, and pre-paid probate plans. It will write to a number of firms that offer these services in order to seek further information about their practices.
The project will consider consumer and industry concerns, information from legal services providers about their practices and the extent to which legal service providers are complying with consumer law.
The CMA said initial research had identified questionable areas of concern including misleading advertising, unfair contract terms, pressure selling, lack of transparency on costs, and the suitability of products being sold.
“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,” the CMA said.
“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,” the CMA said.
Will writing is unregulated
Although many wills are drafted by regulated lawyers, will-writing itself is not a regulated service. Anyone can legally write a will in the UK.
The value of the wills, trusts and probate market was £2bn in 2021 and there are about 208,000 unregulated providers in England and Wales, many of them operating in the will-writing sector, according to the Legal Services Board.
Sarah Cardell, CEO of the CMA, said: “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.
“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.”
The watchdog is 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.
CMA concerns over will writing include consumers being misled by advertising which offer an extremely low initial fee for advice but does not indicate that final costs can increase significantly.
Other concerns include 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).
For both will writing and pre-paid probate plans, the CMA’s concerns include pressure selling techniques being used on elderly and other vulnerable people and lack of transparency about what costs are covered.
The CMA is also investigating online divorce services, or so-called quickie divorces which have grown in popularity since the Covid-19 lockdown.
Concerns for online divorces include misleading claims about both the simplicity of the process and prices, which can leave customers unclear about what they can be helped with or what they are paying for, the CMA said.