Solicitors face competition on grant of probate: Government may end probate monopoly

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The Independent Online
THE Government is planning to abolish the solicitors' monopoly on the grant of probate. An announcement is due shortly from the Lord Chancellor, writes Sue Fieldman.

The intention is that new probate practitioners directly compete with solicitors for probate work.

At present only solicitors can be paid for obtaining a grant of probate - the legal proof that a will is valid, which is needed to give you the power to put the will into effect - although others can do all the surrounding work to sort out the estate.

The grant of probate is only a small part in the probate process. But it is so crucial to the whole procedure that restricting it to solicitors in effect prevents anyone other than the banks from bothering to get involved in probate in a big way. Of course, if you want to do it yourself then there is nothing stopping you.

The banks are the logical applicants to become probate practitioners. They already have trustee and executor departments. The actual granting of probate has to be done by outsiders or solicitors employed by the bank. As probate practitioners they will be able to carry out the whole probate process in-house.

Solicitors have been criticised as deadly slow and expensive. But compared with the charges levied by the banks, solicitors' probate fees are an absolute snip.

Insurance companies and building societies might also want a piece of the probate action. They were excited when solicitors lost the conveyancing monopoly and there was non-stop talk about entering the conveyancing market. But it was all talk and no action. With the exception of a few licensed conveyancers, solicitors still have conveyancing nicely sewn up.

Halifax Building Society has 'no plans at all to do probate'. A spokesman for Abbey National said: 'We are weighing up the options but there are no plans to go ahead at the moment.'

Accountants are a much more likely bet to be probate practitioners. Giles Wintle, a spokesman for the Institute of Chartered Accountants, said: 'We have told the Lord Chancellor that we are to be regarded as a potential candidate. We did a survey of our members about 18 months ago and on balance they were in favour if it did not involve an inordinate amount of bureaucracy and expense.'

Not only organisations and institutions will be applying to be probate practitioners: individuals will also be free to pursue an application.

The Lord Chancellor will have to ensure that there are strict disciplinary rules and that all practitioners have indemnity insurance.

Charles Maggs, a spokesman for the Law Society, said: 'The opportunity for stealing people's money is very high.'

Michael Barnes, the Legal Services Ombudsman, welcomes the introduction of probate practitioners provided there are safeguards to ensure quality of service. He is particularly concerned that the rights of the beneficiaries are protected. He said: 'I would like to see adequate information about fees provided in writing to beneficiaries and where this is not done a reduction in the fees could be imposed.'

This sensible idea should immediately be extended to solicitors as well as probate practitioners.

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