This Ruling replaces that publised on 14 June 2017. The decision has been reversed, making the complaint upheld.
A web page on the Law Society website www.lawsociety.org.uk, seen in November 2016, describing the Conveyancing Quality Scheme (CQS) accreditation, stated “All Law Society Conveyancing Quality Scheme firms go through rigorous examination and testing to demonstrate that they have a high level of knowledge, skills, experience and practice”.
The complainant, a solicitor, who understood that the requirements to join the scheme did not involve any assessment of applicants’ expertise or quality of service, challenged whether the claim was misleading and could be substantiated.
The Law Society of England and Wales (The Law Society) said that the purpose of the CQS was to provide a trusted community of solicitors within the residential conveyancing market that helped to deter fraud and improve “best practice” standards across the sector. The CQS accreditation mark acted as a recognised quality standard for residential conveyancing practices.
The Law Society stated that all practices applying for CQS accreditation were assessed by their Technical Assessment Team to ensure that they met the requirements. They provided a copy of the application form and details of the information that firms were required to submit about their staff, structure and operations, as well as how the Law Society assessed that information. They said that all accredited practices were re-assessed on an annual basis to ensure that they continued to meet the requirements. Accredited practices were also subject to further checks outside of the normal assessment timetable in instances where there was reason to believe that a firm was not compliant with the scheme rules or CQS protocol. All relevant staff within the practice were also required to carry out mandatory training modules covering key issues relevant to conveyancing solicitors. Each module was accompanied by an assessment that they were required to pass. In addition, CQS accredited firms were required to conduct conveyancing work in line with the CQS Conveyancing Protocol, and manage their practice in line with the Core Practice Management Standards and Client Services Charter.
The Law Society believed that the requirements for joining and maintaining membership of the CQS ensured that all accredited firms had a high level of knowledge, skills, expertise and practice, and that the ad was therefore not misleading.
The ad stated “All Law Society Conveyancing Quality Scheme firms go through rigorous examination and testing to demonstrate that they have a high level of knowledge, skills, experience and practice”. The ASA considered that consumers would understand that to mean that The Law Society had conducted an in-depth assessment of each firm that applied for the scheme, and verified that, as a whole, the firm had a high level of knowledge, skills and experience related to residential conveyancing, and that their conduct was of a high standard. We considered that consumers would understand that any conveyancing firm should meet basic minimum requirements in terms of the qualifications and licensing of its staff, and its compliance record. Therefore, given the reference to “rigorous examination and testing” and a “high level of knowledge, skills, experience and practice”, we considered that they would understand members of the CQS had met a standard above and beyond basic requirements.
We noted that applicants were required to provide detailed information relating to a comprehensive range of aspects of their operations. Some of this information was cross-checked with data held by third parties, including the Solicitors Regulation Authority, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives, and the Council for Licensed Conveyancers, the Land Registry, credit agencies, the Legal Ombudsman, and banks; or verified through the submission of original documents, or public domain searches. Information independently verified in this manner included the professional qualifications of the Head of Conveyancing, Senior Responsible Officer, Managers and Qualified Conveyancers; whether the same had held a fitness to practice certificate at all times; details of any training undertaken with the Law Society; the history of complaints against a firm and any action taken in light of these; purchase and sale transaction volumes; merger history; and professional indemnity cover. In addition, the Law Society carried out criminal records and identity checks on all relevant members of staff, and a credit check on the firm. We considered that these checks were sufficient to demonstrate that listed staff members held the appropriate qualifications to undertake their work, and to identify any causes for concern in relation to the conduct and ethics of the firm or its staff. We noted that qualifications were independently verified, and this would form part the consumer understanding of “knowledge”, however we considered that consumers would assume that any conveyancing solicitor held the appropriate qualifications to allow them to carry out residential conveyancing, and so a “high level of knowledge” was likely to be understood as implying a level of knowledge that went beyond this basic requirement. The assessment team also independently verified records of training courses that had been administered by The Law Society, though we noted that this would not cover all training an individual might have undertaken.
The form also included questions about the experience and management ability of the Head of Conveyancing to run a residential conveyancing department; adherence of the practice to Core Practice Management Requirements; and the supervision of conveyancing staff. We considered that consumers would likely understand that a firm with a “high level of knowledge, skills [and] experience” would have independently proven to the assessment team that it reached a high standard in these areas.
The sum total of information provided in the form was assessed by the Technical Assessment team and individual elements were assimilated onto a scorecard to determine the suitability of the practice and the individuals within it to obtain CQS accreditation. We noted that between 2014 and 2016, 291 out of 293 applications had been approved.
We also noted that relevant members of staff were required to undertake training and pass multiple-choice assessments, demonstrating their knowledge of key areas of conveyancing practice, within six months of accreditation being granted. This meant that firms could be accepted into the scheme before any relevant members of staff had been trained and assessed. We noted that the training contributed toward demonstrating that staff had knowledge of a range of subjects relevant to residential conveyancing, however we considered that readers of the ad would expect that all criteria would have been met prior to accreditation being granted.
The continuing suitability of accredited firms to retain membership was re-assessed on an annual basis using the same process described above. We understood that the Law Society had the capacity to undertake more detailed investigations into complaints it received about CQS-accredited firms, including on-site visits. These would consist of physical file reviews, interviews with staff, and observation of day to day processes and procedures. In the event they considered that a firm no longer met the required criteria, they could and did revoke membership. However, we understood that independent observation of these factors was only carried out, if considered necessary, following receipt of information calling into question a firm’s adherence to CQS rules and protocols; or where concerns were identified by the assessment team at re-accreditation stage. We understood that on-site visits were not conducted prior to initial accreditation. According to figures provided by The Law Society, no more than twelve firms had been visited, and two firms had had their membership revoked, between 2012 and 2016. In the majority of years, no on-site visits had been undertaken.
While we acknowledged that firms were granted CQS accreditation on the basis of independently-verified information attesting that they met an adequate standard in terms of their competency, conduct and ability to carry out conveyancing transactions, we considered that this amounted to the minimum level of “knowledge, skills, experience and practice” that consumers would expect from a firm that was licensed to undertake a major legal transaction on their behalf. In that context, and in the absence of any routine, independent checks to assess the relative degree of “knowledge, skills [and] experience” that the firm possessed prior to membership being granted, we considered that the ad exaggerated the level of knowledge, skills and experience possessed by a CQS-accredited firm and its staff, and the extent of the checks that a firm had to undergo to receive its accreditation. We concluded that the claim “All Law Society Conveyancing Quality Scheme firms go through rigorous examination and testing to demonstrate that they have a high level of knowledge, skills, experience and practice”, as consumers were likely to understand it, had not been substantiated and was therefore misleading.
The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1 (Misleading advertising) and 3.7 (Substantiation).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained about. We told the Law Society to ensure that their advertising did not describe CQS-accredited firms in a manner that misleadingly exaggerated the membership requirements of the CQS.