Threats of violence, swearing, name calling and intimidation tactics are some of the experiences property solicitors have endured since lockdown restrictions were lifted and house sales rocketed. Conveyancers say the behaviour highlights the need for change in the homebuying process and are calling for support from the industry.
All professionals in the property buying process have reported unprecedented levels of activity due to a combination of pent up demand, the stamp duty holiday and a desire to move to a larger home after lockdown.
But conveyancers say, as the last link in the property chain, they are forced to bear the brunt of client frustrations and abuse as they attempt to fulfil their legal responsibilities. Not understanding or respecting the role of conveyancing in the homebuying process, say solicitors, leads to unacceptable client behaviour which mortgage brokers and estate agents could help to relieve.
A shocking message posted on the professional networking site Linkedin laid bare the scale of the problem.
It read: “Fat c***, w****r, bunch of sh**s.
“This is language that has been levelled at conveyancers by clients in recent weeks – unacceptable isn’t it? We all know that moving house is stressful and that the SDLT deadlines have made everything worse. But clients must take responsibility for their actions.”
Author of the post, Lorraine Richardson, property solicitor at Adapt Law, said she had been compelled to write the message and host a talk on her YouTube channel, Conveyancing Matters, due to the heightened levels of abuse directed at her profession.
“The stress conveyancers have been under in the last 12 to 18 months is extraordinary,” she told Mortgage Solutions.
“Coal face conveyancers have been subject to a fair sense of rudeness from stressed clients for a long time, but the stamp duty holiday has massively exacerbated the situation.
“There’s not a great deal of respect for what we do. Some conveyancing has become commoditised which doesn’t help. It’s seen as a box ticking exercise. But the client also thinks they own you because they’ve paid a fee.
“Conveyancers are also the ones who have to give bad news, such as sorry you can’t move forward with the purchase because there’s a problem with the title.”
Having to repeat actions such as producing identification and bank statements when they have already submitted these documents to a broker and a lender also incites anger, Richardson added.
Stuart Forsdike, partner at PCS Legal, said his firm has been subject to various threats over the last 18 months which he has put down to the pressure buyers were under to complete purchases ahead of the 30 June stamp duty deadline.
“We had someone leave a voicemail to say they were going to drive to the office and run over the case handler,” said Forsdike. “In the last two months alone we’ve had people threatening to come to the office with a gun and another with a knife.”
Forsdike said while aggressive clients account for a small proportion of instructions, the level of frustration felt by homebuyers which occasionally leads to abuse “demonstrates the radical need for change in the conveyancing process,”.
He would like to see bodies such as the Law Society and Solicitors Regulation Authority produce literature for borrowers explaining how conveyancing works and how long it takes.
Encouraging clients to provide information pre-offer would also help to speed up the transaction, he added.
Estate agents and mortgage brokers could play their part by managing expectations and prepping their clients about the documents they will need to provide again to their solicitor even though they have already shown them to a broker and lender said Richardson. Sharing information with solicitors would also help to speed up the transaction, she added.
“Brokers will know if the borrower is receiving a gifted deposit from their parents but lenders rarely indicate on the offer that the source of the deposit is gifted,” she said. “When we find out, we have a responsibility to do ID checks on the parents and then disclose it to the lender even though they know, because it’s not referenced on the offer. If the broker told us on day one, at least we could do these checks straight away instead of finding out three weeks later.”
The Home Buying and Selling Group has begun work to tackle abuse and speed up the homebuying process.
The Association of Mortgage Intermediaries, part of the group, has been involved in the programme. Chief executive Robert Sinclair said the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities was keen to work with the industry to simplify and speed up homebuying. The development of a cross-industry code of conduct to stamp out abuse is also underway.
“The property buying process causes some people to behave irrationally which can lead to unacceptable behaviour towards conveyancers,” said Sinclair. “The industry is aware of this issue and is proactively trying to find solutions.
“We’re doing a lot of work as part of the Home Buying and Selling Group to combat this behaviour. For example, we hope there will soon be communications coming out talking about how vendors need to be sale-ready.
“Could brokers do more to ease this abuse? Absolutely. Some do this really well, but some could do this better. Brokers should tell borrowers to start the legal process early and spend a little money investing in a solicitor who can start looking into any title issues on the property to reduce delays.
“The abuse often comes because the conveyancer has to tell the buyer there are defects on the title discovered much further down the line.”