Probate is one of those legal processes that almost everyone will need to negotiate at some time in their lives. Unfortunately, the complexity juxtaposed with necessity can leave the legal services consumer feeling trapped – in desperate need of assistance at a difficult time but dissatisfied and disempowered by the options presented before them.

Above all, at a time of grief and uncertainty, with all the emotional and familial difficulties that may emerge, the client is likely to want and need clarity regarding who is providing them with a probate service, how much it will cost, and just what it will entail. But this is not always as simple as it sounds. And in the case of those faced by the prospect of handing over the probate reins to a professional executor named in the Will, any notion of choice appears to be completely snatched from their hands.

Unlike some other sectors, financial services for instance, the disruption to the supply chain caused by aggregators using sophisticated technology and well-marketed easy-to-use platforms has not yet dominated in the legal sector. This disruption has been trumpeted as a force for good in sectors such as car insurance. But there has been relatively little disturbance to the status quo of the legal sector and its provision of legal services.

In 2017 the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) published its “key criteria for success” which, it hoped, would engender the kind of improved transparency long called-for by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

Unfortunately, the LSCP found legal services consumers suffer from “information overload”, to the point that it confuses them and cripples their decisions regarding legal choices.

“Although information was routinely given, its effectiveness was found wanting under evaluation due to the manner of compliance,” said the LSCP. “Similarly, all the regulators we assessed place a requirement on their regulated communities to provide clear estimates and even accurate costings, yet the CMA found a widespread lack of transparency in this area.”

Interestingly, one issue the panel highlighted was the dearth of comparison websites in the legal sector; a fact which, in our view, makes it all too easy for consumers to quickly reach a point where they are prepared to go with just about the first reasonable-sounding firm they find. Effectively, they are often recruiting their probate lawyer blind.

Dr Jane Martin, chair of the LSPC panel, stated, “We know that information can empower consumers and encourage them to make informed decisions, and that this is good for competition.”

But in the absence of a suitable and effective price comparison mechanism for legal services,  it has been all but impossible for clients to be empowered and informed while undertaking the probate process. Consumers have been starved of really useful guidance.

Yes, there are firms offering fixed-fee probate services, although these are not always available without, at the very least, a phone call to the firm. So, while this may seem to be a fairly transparent way of acquiring a probate service, there has, thus far, been no single portal to provide an effective mechanism for comparing these fixed fees.  In fact, the “fixed” element of the fees can seem meaningless when the precise cost only becomes apparent to the consumer following lengthy and detailed conversations with the firm concerned, or in the case of  some providers, following the pressure of what must feel like an obligation-making home visit. Having sat for an hour or two with a probate specialist to disseminate the minutiae of the deceased's details, by the time the potential client reaches the point where they find out how much it is going to cost, it's easy to see why so many find it hard to say “no”. You could argue that it is not advertising, fees or a compelling vision of good service that is winning over the consumer, it is fatigue.  

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