So-called “quickie” online divorces are one of the focuses of a new review into unregulated legal services, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has announced.
The review comes amidst concerns that not all providers are complying with consumer protection law.
The CMA noted that “customers now have many alternatives to the conventional law firms on the high street”, especially for unreserved legal services.
“Alternative providers very often offer services that are innovative and convenient for consumers, and that can be cheaper too. But where they are unregulated, it becomes all the more important that normal consumer protection laws are complied with and, if necessary, enforced,” they added.
The competition regulator said initial research has identified three main areas of concern involving potential risk to customers and possible breaches of consumer protection law: will writing, pre-paid probate, and online divorce.
Concerns around so-called “quickie” divorce services – which have grown in popularity since the Covid-19 lockdown – include:
- Misleading claims about both the simplicity of the process and prices, which leave customers unclear about what they can be helped with or what they are paying for
- Inadequate quality of service, including the firms using the wrong forms, entering incorrect details, sending papers to the court late, and not communicating efficiently with customers.
The CMA is also concerned that, if a company ceases to operate, there is a risk that customers’ money or important documents may be lost.
“These services are essential to people, often at the most challenging times in their lives. The CMA is aware that rising living costs mean people are watching their spending, so shopping around for a more affordable option is attractive and sometimes a necessity,” said Sarah Cardell, Chief Executive of the CMA, adding:
“These may not be frequent purchases, but they are life-changing. That’s why it’s so important that we investigate so that people can select the right legal service for them – for divorce or probate or will-writing – with confidence. It’s essential that firms get the basics right, including complying with general consumer law which applies to all traders. Customers must get a fair deal.”
Sarah Coles, head of personal finance, Hargreaves Lansdown, said:
“Online divorce services have been around for a while, but took off during the pandemic. The CMA is concerned that some of them may be making misleading promises about how simple people can expect the process to be, and what it’s likely to cost. It can mean divorcing couples have no idea what help they can expect or what they will end up paying for.
It also came across firms falling short on all sorts of levels – including using the wrong forms, putting details in incorrectly, sending papers to the court late and communicating poorly. Even the most straightforward of divorces can become a horrible headache with hiccups along the way, and if you try to use them for a more involved divorce, there’s a chance that things can be missed too. For divorces where there are complex pensions to consider, one possible risk is that one of the most valuable assets of the marriage is completely overlooked or valued wrongly – which can have implications for the rest of your life.”
Any interested parties, like consumer advocates, professional bodies, trade associations or any consumers with experience of using someone who is not a solicitor to provide a will, online divorce service or pre-paid probate plan can send their responses to UnregulatedLegalServicesTeam@cma.gov.uk by 4th September 2023.