Legal Affairs Correspondent
The solicitors' leader, Martin Mears, is planning to get the Law Society to force firms into ending cut-price conveyancing by taking away their insurance cover if they work for less than a recommended scale of fees.
Over the past decade, prices of conveyancing have plummeted. Three quarters of homes are now conveyed for less than pounds 300. What was once a highly profitable part of solicitors' business is now often a loss-leader, and Mr Mears was elected on a manifesto which included a pledge to get fees back up.
A consultation document prepared by the vice-president, Robert Sayers, argues that firms which offer cut-price conveyancing are cutting corners and making a disproportionate demand on the insurance scheme, the Solicitors Indemnity Fund. A minimum fee of pounds 250 plus half a per cent of the house price, not including VAT, land registration and searches, is suggested. Consumer groups argue that the way to deal with shoddy work is to police the profession better.
If the solicitors get their way, many homebuyers' costs would double. Mr Mears will attempt to push the controversial proposals through the Law Society's ruling council next week, and if successful ask for comments from the profession, and rulings on the legality of the move.
A fixed scale of fees, enforceable by law, was abolished by the Government in 1972, but fees remained high until the mid-1980s when genuine competition was introduced by the abolition of the solicitors' monopoly on conveyancing and an Act allowing solicitors to advertise. Under the Solicitors Act, for a price-fixing agreement to be allowed it needs to be accepted by the Master of the Rolls, who would have to be persuaded that the move was in the public interest.
Aware that the 65 members of the council are likely to be cautious about the change, Mr Mears plans to begin the meeting next week with an attempt to change the voting system so that a record is kept of how each person votes. "I know that the profession wants this change," he said.