Clients are at risk of getting burned by straw ‘legal services’ providers

While the Lord Chief Justice consults on revised guidance on McKenzie Friends, including a possible ban on fee paying McKenzies, it is not just in family law that unregulated ‘legal services’ are spreading. The Legal Consumer Panel of the Legal Services Board seems sanguine, even encouraging about the growth of a non-regulated legal services sector as a cheap alternative to regulated legal advice. However, my experiences with various such ‘providers’ in the housing law sector are not encouraging, about their abilities or their probity.

There are quite a few companies promoting themselves as offering ‘possession and eviction services’ for landlords (some even offer advice or representation for tenants). Having come across a couple, I went looking for more. What I found is more than a little worrying. Follow up conversations on Twitter with people involved in these providers only made it clear that things were even worse than I feared. I’ve anonymised what follows, but all quotes and details are accurate.

”We’ll represent you at court”
Under section 12(1) Legal Services Act 2007, the exercise of a right of audience and the conduct of litigation are reserved activities, which only those entitled by way of being either authorised or exempt may carry out. It is an offence to carry out such a reserved activity when not entitled, or to purport to have a right of audience.

That, however, doesn’t prevent some of these companies misrepresenting their status and abilities. It appears to be common for such companies to promise on their site that they can conduct litigation and represent clients at court.

For example, one landlord legal services site stated:

We will present your case in any local county court in England and Wales. Unlike our competitors, we attend court ourselves using our own advocates. We cover most areas but are particularly specialised in Landlord & Tenant Possession Hearings and Mortgage Repossessions.

I couldn’t find anyone at this company who was an authorised person or qualified to practice. Another company, again unregulated and, it appears, with no-one authorised or qualified, said:

We have a solution. First, every stage of your case is handled in house. From property possession to rent recovery, we also represent you in court.

That company also did deposit claims for tenants. But all that knowledge and experience has disappeared, as now they only tout for flight delay claims.

In both these cases and in others, once they were publicly challenged, their sites were swiftly amended. This suggests that either that they didn’t know what they were doing – always reassuring in people offering ‘legal services’ – or they did know exactly what they were doing, but were prepared to make a misrepresentation until caught out.

Sadly, it is not generally known that the term ‘lawyer’ has no statutory or regulatory meaning. To call oneself a solicitor or a barrister when not qualified is a criminal offence, but anyone at all can call themselves a lawyer. And they do.

One company had as its public face a 22-year-old director of the company of eight months standing, with no legal qualifications whatsover, who described himself as a ‘housing lawyer’. (He also described himself as a ‘scholar of jurisprudence’, with equal accuracy.) The other director in that company had a string of dissolved companies doing similar work in his past.

Another business used ‘lawyer’ in its name, though as far as I could see there was no-one legally qualified involved. The ‘partner’ of that set-up had a similar but failed, dissolved company behind him, leaving creditors £50,000 out of pocket.

A company that offers ‘legal services’ to both landlords and tenants turned out to be owned by a solicitor, but not a regulated firm. The company’s ‘expertise’ page states that he is:

‘… a solicitor specialising in possession issues (landlord, tenants and mortgage possession), though [the company] is not a solicitor’s firm… . Our other lawyers specialise in landlord and tenant law… .’

Note the smooth slippage from X is a solicitor to ‘our other lawyers’. But even here, for a non-solicitor firm, we find the assertion that these ‘lawyers’ ‘mostly work as court advocates themselves’. They don’t, or at least not for this company, because there would be no rights of audience involved.

Why does this matter?
Does it matter if people set themselves up as ‘lawyers’, providing ‘legal services’, despite – in many instances – having no formal legal qualifications and limited experience? Is this not something that a market can be relied upon to sort out in the long term?

As these set-ups spread, it is worth recalling that they are unregulated and often uninsured. If things go wrong – and they may well do so – the client has no realistic recourse. These are usually straw companies, as any time spent on Companies House will show. There is, after all, nothing to prevent one company folding and an identical company taking its place, as some of those I’ve looked into demonstrate.

There is no regulator, no ombudsman, no means of disputing fees and in most instances no insurance. The quality of advice may well be variable, but as these encounters show, many in the ‘legal services’ sector are not averse to misrepresenting their services and skills. My favourite example of a clear ethical approach would be the west London set-up whose url starts ‘citizensadvicelaw’ (they state they ‘are a non-Sra based practice and employ Solicitors’. If they do, I’m sure the SRA should be interested).

If this is, as the LSB panel suggested, the future for a post-legal aid market for legal services, it is one that both real lawyers and clients should be very concerned about. Desperate clients will suffer the results.

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