Sound legal advice does not come cheap

At its meeting today, the Law Society Council will be asked to approve a minimum recommended fee scale for conveyancing - a change that has been quite controversial. Solicitors would be free to charge below the recommended rate but, if they did, the transaction would not be covered by the Solicitor's Indemnity Fund and they would have to arrange their own insurance.

The proposals need the consent of the Master of the Rolls who would have to be convinced they were in the public interest. The consumerist orthodoxy, of course, is that cheapest is always best. But the fallacy of this position is obvious. No one employs an electrician or a dentist on price alone. People look for a quality service at a reasonable charge. They also do this when they employ a solicitor, but with one exception. A conveyancing solicitor is regarded as supplying a package. And provided that the package is delivered (ie, a set of keys or a cheque on completion day), that is all that is required.

But what if the solicitor charges so little that he is unable to devote proper time to the transaction or to employ competent staff. What if, say, he fails to make proper searches so that the purchaser finds his property is in the path of a motorway? In that event, the client will sue the solicitor and the solicitor will resort to the Solicitors Indemnity Fund, a mutual fund sustained by the contributions of all practising solicitors.

The profession as a whole, then, finds itself in the position of subsidising inferior work carried out by cut-price practitioners. Figures establishing a correlation between cut-price work and claims on the Indemnity Fund have now emerged.

As the Lloyd's debacle demonstrated, an excess of insurance claims can break even the strongest institution. And the full seriousness of the situation cannot yet be known as most mistakes made in the course of conveyancing transactions do not emerge until years later.

Alas, the public perception of solicitors as fat cats remains. The opposite is the truth. Recent Law Society figures show that 25 per cent of sole practitioners earn less than pounds 10,000 per annum and 25 per cent of solicitors in small firms (partners numbering four or under) earn less than a senior school teacher. A recent Coopers and Lybrand report estimates that, within the next five years, 20 to 25 per cent of firms will disappear.

It is not as though conveyancing fees were high. In 1993, the Woolwich Building Society survey found that our conveyancing fees were the cheapest in western Europe.

The British public is used to a high standard of service from all its professions. But the public cannot have professions that are skilled, efficient and incorruptible, and also have them cheap. Still less can it reasonably demand that an ill-paid profession should pick up the bill for all its aberrant members.

The writer is president of the Law Society.