Unfair constraint on free choice of legal regulator

Changing from one regulator to another should not be difficult and should not be restricted due to the exclusive and unnecessarily stringent arrangements operating between one regulator and the insurance industry. 

How on the one hand can you introduce the flexibility of choosing a regulator that suits your business, and which will benefit the client, and then with the other hand have a rule which places a financial burden of such a magnitude that the cost of switching becomes totally prohibitive.  It simply does not make sense and makes a mockery of not only the role of the Legal Services Board but also the legal profession as a whole.

So, you wish for example to switch regulator from the Solicitors Regulation Authority ( SRA) to the Council of Licensed Conveyancers (CLC). A logical move if you are a conveyancer because  you wish to be regulated by a regulator who understands conveyancing and who has a focused interest in how the conveyancing profession should be allowed to be developed.   You make the choice with business interest in mind and with the knowledge that you clients will benefit because of the Council’s insight into and knowledge of the conveyancing industry.  A regulator that is niche and which does not at least for now wish to be all things to all people.

A perfectly logical decision therefore and one which should be easy to implement.

To be fair the process of applying to the CLC is straight forward and unless there are major issues in the way you run your business, the application should be approved without too much difficulty.   The problem however is with the SRA and its agreement with the insurance industry.   Under  Participating Insurers Agreement (PIA) when one changes regulator this acts an automatic  trigger for ‘run off’ indemnity insurance.   The so called logic is that because PII policies are written on a “claims made” basis rather than the “losses occurring” basis used in general insurance, responsibility for the claim rests with the insurer in place at the time of the negligence.  If therefore at the time the claim is made there is no longer an insurance policy  in place which accords with the PIA the client may find him or herself uninsured.  

The theory behind this is that the PIA minimum term insurance is superior in terms of coverage to the insurance which is required by the CLC.  I say in theory  because having had some brokers to interrogate the differences they do not seem to  be that significant and far reaching.   To begin with, the minimum term insurance will still pay out on a claim if the solicitor does not pay the premium or where there has been bad faith on the part of the solicitor which has led to the claim.    Interestingly when the Insurance Act 2015 is introduced later this year the latter of these two difference will offer little comfort as the insurer will be able to void the claim in the event of fraud and or deliberate or reckless failure to disclose relevant facts.  It’s not clear at this stage how this will operate with within he PIA.

Essentially therefore, there is very little difference although when one looks at the cost of insurance there is a substantial and a totally unfair difference in annual premiums.   The cost of minimum term insurance and non-minimum term is staggering and does gives rise to the question of whether as a profession we have and continue to be been mugged when it comes to the extortionately high PII premiums charged.   A conveyancing business with a million pound turnover and a clean claims record would with the CLC be looking to pay a premium of around £15,000 compared to a premium of £80,000  for minimum term cover.   How can this be justified?   The same risks apply irrespective of regulator. The only conclusion is that you are paying £65,000 for the added consumer protection provided by the minimum terms.  The fact that the claim will be paid in the event of the wrongdoing of the conveyancer or the failure of the solicitor to pay the premium.  One in reply may ask with good reason why should an insurer pay out in these circumstance in any event.  More importantly why as a profession should we paying higher premiums to address the risk presented by the less honest members.  Why should we be deprived of the opportunity to choose the type and scope of cover we consider as a professional outfit will address the risk of a client raising a claim?

So the SRA as the situation currently stands will not allow a SRA regulated firm to choose its regulator unless it is satisfied that there will be adequate minimum term insurance in place to cover past claims ( for six years)  The practical consequence of this is that although with the CLC, you current year’s insurance could for example be   as low as £15K,  to make the switch and obtain the SRA waiver you would need to put into place a run off minimum term insurance policy which sticking with the present example, could cost as much as  £200,00 plus!

A nonsense and a major barrier to the freedom and benefits of choosing your regulator.

To be fair to the SRA the above unfairness and restriction on competitiveness has been identified and the SRA has began a consultation process with the view to removing the ‘run of’f requirement on change of regulator (http://www.sra.org.uk/sra/consultations/removing-barriers-switching-regulators.page).

Crispin Passmore, Executive Director for Policy at the SRA, commenting on the process stated:

"Firms should be able to switch to the regulator they feel is right for their business more easily than is currently the case. Legal businesses are increasingly owned by, and employ, a range of lawyers and non-lawyers, so choosing a regulator is an important business decision. Facilitating choice is a good way to encourage a modern, competitive market that provides affordable and accessible services.

"The Legal Services Board ensures minimum standards of client protection are maintained by all legal services regulators. Nonetheless, we have to be careful that removing unnecessary bureaucratic obstacles for firms does not create potential risks for the clients of firms wanting to switch. We want to get the right balance between encouraging a competitive market and ensuring the interests of those using legal services continue to be protected, so we are keen to hear views on how best to do this.

"If there are options that we have not thought of that should be considered, we are very open to ideas.”

I agree the client has to be protected but if as is available insurers are prepared to offer conveyancers looking to switch cover for past claims and which will meet claims providing the conveyancers have not failed to provide full disclosure and paid the premium then I am not sure how it can said the client will not be protected.   To claim otherwise would suggest that CLC conveyancer clients are at more risk than SRA conveyancing clients.  If this  so shouldn’t the public be made aware of this ?

It seems to me that the insurance industry has been able with the full acquiesce of the SRA to hide behind the PIA and charge inflated PII rates making it more expensive for SRA insured back conveyancers to compete with other regulated conveyancers.   This cannot be allowed to continue and as a profession we need to stand up and support the SRA with the proposed changes which could if implemented lead to reduction in the level of PII insurance premiums across the board.

MJP Conveyancing are solicitors who provide legal advice and services to clients based in England and Wales and who can be contacted on 01603877067 or via email at david@mjpconveyancing.com

Are conveyancers over charging on ‘mum and dad’ assisted property transactions?

Introduction

The principle behind the insurance is that it protects the mortgagee’s (i.e. bank lending the money) title in the property if the donor of a gift or informal family loan goes bankrupt and  the donor’s creditors make a claim to the money as part of the donor’s assets.

But is it necessary?  Do all conveyancers actually understand the applicable law?


Background

The conveyancer is under a duty to both client and the client’s lender to ensure they obtain “a good and marketable title to the property and free from prior mortgages or charges and from onerous encumbrances which title will be registered with absolute title” (Solicitors’ Regulation Authority Handbook).

If there is a gift from a family member ( or a discounted purchase price when purchasing from a family member) or an informal loan the donor on the face of it will acquire an interest in the property. Gifted deposit insurance provides protection if the donor becomes insolvent and creditors of the donor make a claim putting the property at risk as well as the lender’s security.

The Law

The law behinds this is S339 of the Insolvency Act 1986 provides that if a bankrupt has within the previous five years “entered into a transaction with any person at an undervalue,” then “the trustee of the bankrupt’s estate may apply to the court for an order” to restore  the gift to the donor for the benefit of the creditors.

However S342(2)(a) offers the lender with protection stating that if an order is made under S339  this will not …. prejudice any interest in property which was acquired from a person other than that individual and was acquired in good faith and for value, or prejudice any interest deriving from such an interest”. Essentially the bank is protected from a Section 339 order by S.342 as long as it acts honestly and doesn't knowingly aid dishonesty. Its title in the property is therefore protected and in no way placed at risk .

The only time a  lender may not avail itself of this protection if the lender knew both that there was a gift/transaction at an undervalue and that the donor was already insolvent or a petition of bankruptcy had been presented when the gift was made. Hence the need for the conveyancer to carry our ID and bankruptcy checks against the donor.

Interestingly if this situation was allowed to arise then gifted deposit insurance would not assist in any event.

If the gift was specially made to put it beyond the reach of creditors, an order could be made under  Sections 423–425 of the Insolvency Act to restore the position to that before the transaction at an undervalue. Section 425 however would protect the lender if its interest was “acquired in good faith, for value and without notice of the relevant circumstances”.  Again unless the lender was aware of what was going on the lender would not be affected by the insolvency.

Council for Mortgage Lenders Handbook

This states:

‘If you are aware that the title to the property is subject to a deed of gift or a transaction at an apparent undervalue completed within five years of the proposed mortgage then you must be satisfied that we will acquire our interest in good faith and will be protected under the provisions of the Insolvency (No 2) Act 1994 against our security being set aside. If you are unable to give an unqualified certificate of title, you must arrange indemnity insurance (see section 9)

‘You must effect an indemnity insurance policy whenever the Lenders’ Handbook identifies that this is an acceptable or required course to us to ensure that the property has a good and marketable title at completion’.


Practical Implications


Providing the checks on identification and bankruptcy come back all clear,  it would seem from this analysis that an unqualified certificate of title could be given to the lender where there is a gifted deposit.

Is there a need to obtain a letter of postponement from the donor, that is a ‘gift letter’.  Probably yes in terms of good practice though the Land Registration Act 2002 does provide that a mortgagee has priority over any claim that the donor may have for the return of the gift,


Conclusion


By blindly insisting on indemnity insurance which appears on the above analysis of the law to be wholly unnecessary it seems conveyancers are not acting in their clients best interests.   

At the time the Insolvency ( No2) Act 1994 ( which made amendments to S342 (2) (a)  was passing through the then House of Lords Lord Coleraine said:

“the saving in that section [of the Insolvency Act] for a third party purchaser for value and in good faith will no longer be negatived merely by the purchaser’s knowledge of an earlier transaction at an undervalue or preference … the effect of the clause should be to speed conveyancing and greatly reduce the need for insurance in the cases where problems arise” (Hansard 1994 vol 554 at para 348).

Clearly the insurance industry is also very much guilty in terms of selling and promoting an insurance which seems to offer no purpose other than as a comforter to conveyancers.

There should also be a call made on the Council for Mortgage Lenders to review and to amend the Handbook to make the requirements  for seeking indemnity insurance on a gifted deposit clear and more in line with the Insolvency legislation.

Source :   *Gifted deposits and indemnity insurance: a risk assessment, Nick Pi┼íka, Conv. 2015, 2, 133-147  (Subscription required)

 MJP Conveyancing are solicitors who provide legal advice and services to clients based in England and Wales and who can be contacted on 01603877067 or via email at david@mjpconveyancing.com

The practical implications for conveyancers arising out of the decision in Purrunsing v A’Court & Co & Anor - An article by David Pett Solicitor and Director MJP Conveyancing

HH Judge Pelling QC


In Purrunsing v A’Court & Co & Anor [2016] EWHC 789 (Ch) conveyancers for both the seller and buyer  were held liable for the actions of a rogue seller who committed a £470,000 property fraud.

In this article I examine the findings and provide some thoughts on how conveyancers may wish in the light of the decision to adapt certain parts of their processes. 





Facts

London based conveyancers Home Owners Conveyancing Limited (HOC) (the second defendant) acted for the purchaser (the claimant) of a property which was sold by a rogue seller who was purporting to be the registered owner of a £470,000 property.  The fraudster who claimed to be but was not the registered owner ‘Mr Dawson’ was represented by the Windsor based conveyancers A’Court & Co (ACC) (the first defendant).

By the time the fraud was discovered, the claimant has transferred the purchase monies to his conveyancer (HOC), and these monies had in turn been sent on to the fraudsters solicitors (ACC). Following completion of the transaction ACC then transferred funds to the fraudster to an account held in Dubai.

The issues

ACC the solicitors acting for the purported seller were initially found to have made the payments to the fraudster in breach of the duty of trust it owed to the claimant.

The issues before HH Judge Pelling QC in this case were as follows:

Having acted in breach of trust should ACC be granted relief under s61 of the Trustees Act 1925?  S61 provides:

"If it appears to the court that a trustee, whether appointed by the court or otherwise, is or may be personally liable for any breach of trust, … but has acted honestly and reasonably and ought fairly to be excused for the breach of the trust … then the court may relieve him either wholly or partly from personal liability for the same."

Should the claimant’s conveyancers (HOC) be liable to the Claimant for breach of contract or negligence?

In the event both firms of conveyancers should be held liable to the claimant how the liability should be apportioned between the two firms?

The findings – the claim against ACC (the ‘seller’s’ solicitors)

HH Judge Pelling found that ACC had not acted reasonably and were not entitled to relief under S61.

He based this on the following findings:

Upon considering the Money Laundering Regulations 2007 and the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 he concluded:

‘……..that is that the solicitor concerned is required to look at all of the information available and assess whether it is consistent with the transaction that the client wishes to carry out being a lawful one. That much is obvious from ss.327-329 and s.340 of POCA. As the Note makes clear, that exercise "… may include considering whether the client is actually the owner of the property they want to sell"’.

He added:

‘As I have explained already, that will not be necessary or appropriate in every case in which a solicitor is retained to act for the vendor of residential property. In each case a judgment will be required based on the risk posed by the transaction in question. That is the effect of the part of the Handbook [Conveyancing Handbook set out above, which emphasises the need for a risk-based approach to be taken’.

In short, the Judge stated that a reasonable solicitor carrying out due diligence required by the MLR and adopting as per the Conveyancing Handbook a risk based due diligence approach ought to have considered whether Mr Dawson was the owner of the property he was purporting to sell in order to assess whether the transaction was a lawful one.  I will deal with the practical implications of this shortly.

The findings – the claim against HOC (the buyer’s solicitors)

The finding that HOC has acted in breach of contract and or duty of care was based on the following general principle applicable when considering the extent of the duty of care owed by a conveyancer to a client:

‘That in general a solicitor or licensed conveyancer is not obliged to undertake investigations that are not expressly or impliedly requested by the client but that if in fact a solicitor or licenced conveyancer acquires information that may be of importance to a client, then it is the duty of the solicitor to bring that information to the attention of the client.'

In this case HOC had raised an enquiry with ACC in the following terms:

"Please confirm you are familiar with the sellers and will verify they are the sellers and check ID to support same"

In reply ACC had responded:

‘2) As explained to you over the telephone, prior to being approached to act on the sale we have no personal knowledge of Mr Dawson, but we confirm that we have met him in person and have seen his passport (and retain a copy of the photo page) together with utility bills etc showing his UK address as notified to us’.

There was a failure on the part of HOC to inform the claimant that this question had been raised and also to make the claimant aware of the significance of the reply even though it was found that the claimant had failed to read the replies sent to him.

The Judge found:

HOC was in breach of contract and/or duty to the claimant in failing to inform him that (a) Additional Enquiry (2) had been raised, (b) that the purpose of that additional enquiry was to attempt to establish a link between the property and the apparent vendor, and (c) the answers received showed that (i) ACC had no documents whatsoever relating to this property, save for those already received (and thus for example they did not have the Deed of Gift of which Mr Beach had made enquiries by the earlier letter from him to Mr A'Court of 16 October 2012); (ii) ACC had no personal knowledge of Mr Dawson, and (iii) ACC had not verified, and could not confirm from the information available to them, or at least had not confirmed from the information available to them, a link between the vendor and the property, and (d) in consequence, there was a risk in proceeding with the purchase.’

The findings – Contribution

The judge found both firms of conveyancers equally to blame having regard to ‘…relative causal potency as well as comparative blameworthiness by reference to the facts and matters…’

The Practical Implications when acting for the seller

It is clear that when acting for any client there is a need to carry out a risk assessment not only on the client but the transaction itself.  In carrying this out one needs to keep in mind the MLR, POCA and Conveyancing Handbook requirements and guidance. 

The case assists in identifying certain risk indicators that any responsible conveyancer would be foolish to ignore.

In this case the solicitors acting for the rouge seller chose to reply blindly on routine money laundering checks ignoring the following warning signs:

They knew that the property was unoccupied

They knew that it was not subject to a charge

They knew that Mr Dawson had given an address that was not either the address for the property or the alternative service address that appeared in the proprietorship register for the property.

It is abundantly clear that faced with these facts that a reasonable solicitor should obtain from a seller documentation of any sort that could establish a link between that individual and the property.  In this case there were two addresses shown for the registered proprietor none of which matched the address given by the rouge seller to ACC.

It should be kept in mind that ACC knew that that a previous attempt to sell the property on behalf of the rouge seller fell through after the then prospective buyer pulled out when the rouge seller failed to provide evidence of employment in Dubai.  

So where a seller produces evidence of identity and of an address which is not that shown on the land Registry title it would be prudent to insist that the seller produces documents or other evidence which shows a connection between the seller and that of the property to be sold.

I also suggest that it may in some circumstances be wise to ask for details of the solicitor who acted on the purchase of the property so that appropriate checks can be made with that solicitor over identity etc

The Practical Implications when acting for the Buyer

It seems to me that the buyer’s solicitor in this case fell foul due to raising a question which probably they did not need to raise.  Remember the Judge in this case found for the claimant because of a failure on the part of the conveyancer to ‘…ensure that the claimant proceeded at all times on an informed basis.’

Therefore one may be best advised not to raise questions that go behind the Land Registry evidence of title since once raised there is then a professional obligation to make sure the client is made aware of any question and to ensure that when the reply comes in that advice is given on the reply and that any ambiguity and or uncertainty is fully addressed.

The rouge seller’s first attempt to sale failed however after the buyer solicitor was asked for evidence of the seller’s employment in Dubai.

It may in the light of this be prudent to raise as standard enquiries the following questions:

Is the seller based in the UK? 

If not please provide evidence of the seller’s employment based abroad.

A fraudster could still get around this and provide fake evidence but with reference to the S61 defence and the findings in this case it would at the very least show some attempt of trying to protect the buyer’s money.

You may also wish to ask whether there have been any previous attempts to sell the property and if there were why these did not proceed.  

Remember however that if you raise the questions do make sure that you receive full and complete replies.

Other implications

It is clear that when receiving replies to enquiries there is an obligation on a conveyancer to ensure the client sees the replies as well as raising with the client any issue within those replies which could influence the client’s decision to proceed with the transaction.   Sending the replies out to the client and asking the client to simply read and digest is not sufficient.

Conclusion

There is nothing remarkable about this decision other than the fact it should act as a reminder to all conveyancers of the need to keep the risk of fraud in mind at every juncture of the transaction and if acting for a buyer not to assume in every case that the seller has carried out full risk based due diligence. 

David Pett - Solicitor 


MJP Conveyancing are solicitors who provide legal advice and services to clients based in England and Wales and who can be contacted on 01603877067 or via email at david@mjpconveyancing.com