Consumers lay down the law on bad advice

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The Law Society must set and monitor minimum standards for solicitors to stamp out poor practice, the Consumers' Association said yesterday.

It must also replace the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau with a more effective independent body, and be prepared to improve training and assessment of solicitors, said a special report in the association's Which? magazine.

The call comes after an investigation by Which? unveiled a catalogue of potentially costly incorrect advice offered to researchers. It has angered members of the Law Society, who claim the research was badly conducted.

Which? claims its 'clients' discovered that "many solicitors either gave the wrong advice or failed to give the best advice". In one case, only one out of a group of 20 solicitors offered advice deemed 'the best' by the association's lawyers.

In that example, the researcher informed solicitors that despite having a valid three-year guarantee he could not trace the builders of his pounds 3,000 driveway to do repairs. He told them he remembered paying the deposit by credit card. A model answer would have shown that the credit card company could be held liable for compensation.

But Which? claims that if its researcher had followed the most common advice offered, he would have lost both time and money. In fact, "he would most probably have given up and paid for a repair", it said.

In another example, only seven out of 20 solicitors said correctly that a researcher who had bought a car as a private purchaser, without realising the vendor was still tied to a hire purchase agreement, could keep the car.

The magazine also found that solicitor's charges for identical services could differ by hundreds of pounds. Asked to estimate the charge for drawing up a lease one solicitor quoted pounds 20, while another quoted pounds 350.Some did not volunteer the cost of a meeting or letter until they sent out a bill.

The Law Society president, Martin Mears, issued an angry statement which accused the magazine of malpractice in naming individual solicitors and condemned one of the Which? 'model answers' as wrong. "Of course we will be accused of trying to shoot the messenger because we do not like the message. Some messengers deserve to be shot."