It is just over 12 months now since the Law Society unveiled its latest Quality Standard and coming up to 12 months (on 31st October) since the first applications were invited for – the Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme – WIQS for short – and not to be confused with the well-known, but differently spelt, high street chain of DIY stores – Wickes!
As with the other Law Society Quality Standards – Lexcel and CQS – but perhaps more so this time, the percentage of firms taking up WIQS in the first few months is low. There may be many reasons for this; many law firms are struggling financially at present, more and more firms are specialising in niche practice areas, will writing is not a reserved activity and is often at a low fixed fee to enable those firms that do offer will writing services to be competitive. In addition, there is currently no pressure on firms to attain the standard, unlike the Conveyancing Quality Standard which became a requirement for those doing lender panel work. There is also a recognised, albeit not terribly well-known, Quality Standard available for STEP’s (Society of Trust & Estate Practitioners) Members known as the Code for Will Preparation in England and Wales.
There is some confusion between the two standards and what firms should be considering. The salient points of each are detailed below.
All existing SRA regulated practices or sole practitioners who can prove 3 years’ experience of wills and trust administration are eligible to apply for WIQS accreditation. For new practices or sole practitioners or existing practices or sole practitioners who have been in existence for less than 3 years, the nominated SRO must be able to demonstrate 3 years previous experience of wills and estate administration. Accreditation is, therefore, awarded to the practice rather than to an individual with WIQS. In contrast, a full Member, Associate, Affiliate or student of STEPS who has successfully completed the Advanced Certificate in Will Preparation is entitled to market themselves accordingly with a special logo that may be used on their own advertising and corporate materials. However, the logo cannot be used on a firm’s homepage of their website or anywhere where it may imply that the firm are a member of STEPS or imply an endorsement of a particular firm, product or service by STEPS since the logo attached to the individual (eligible practitioner) and not to the firm.
Both the Quality Standard and the Code have client care at their core and both provide a framework within which practitioners are required to work ensuring the highest standards of client care and service, improved communication and increased transparency.
WIQS is designed around 5 pillars, namely probity, quality standards, core practice management standards, client service and scheme quality assurance with a detailed (83 page) protocol to which firms must adhere. The standards within the STEPS Code are similar to but do not go beyond those required of a solicitor in practice, for example, costs information, conflict of interest requirements, confidentiality clauses, adherence to AML provisions and assessment of mental capacity.
Application Process and Fees:
The application process for WIQS is similar to that for CQS and firms that have CQS or Lexcel are exempt from demonstrating the core practice management standards as these mirror those for the aforementioned accreditations. The process for obtaining WIQS requires an SRO to be nominated and a detailed application form and supporting documentation to be submitted to the Law Society. Post-submission, there is a period of approximately 6-8 weeks before a practice hears whether it has been accepted, awarded a fail or given a referral (referred to the assessment panel and/or subjected to an audit). Mandatory training is also a requirement for all relevant staff and the SRO (unless it is the same SRO as for CQS). Fees are at a flat rate, discounted for those firms that have Lexcel or CQS, together with a fee per relevant member of staff for the first year and thereafter an annual fee on the same basis.
In contrast, there is no application process for the STEPS Code nor a fee to be paid, which is to be expected, since the accreditation attaches to the eligible practitioner (ie the member, associate, affiliate or student of STEPS who has successfully completed the Advanced Certificate in Will Preparation).
Quality Standards which provide a framework within which fee earners must work and which promote the highest client care and standards of practice are welcome in whatever area individuals practice. In addition, to attain such quality standards demonstrates to those that regulate the profession as well as the Professional Indemnity market that the practice is serious about providing a quality service to clients and shows an absolute commitment to high standards of risk management.
Certainly, one of the aims of WIQS was to increase the public’s awareness of will writing and estate administration as a service provided by solicitors and to provide consumer reassurance that firms with the quality mark would provide the highest levels of service. Whether enough has been done to raise the public’s awareness of exactly what the standard is, is unknown. However, the more firms that attain accreditation, the more widely known and recognised the standard will become and thus the more valuable to attain and retain.
Legal Eye Ltd regularly assist firms working towards WIQS, CQS and Lexcel.