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Nemo repente fuit turpissimus
My father went to see a Cambridge solicitor in 1980, to have wills drawn up for himself and my mother. The solicitors were Francis & Co, the oldest firm of solicitors in Cambridge, founded in 1789 by Christopher Pemberton, who was reputed to have acted as solicitor to the University and to every Cambridge college. Francis joined as a partner some time later, and the firm enjoyed a good reputation for 200 years. In 1980 my father was a University Professor of 20 years standing and a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. Though none of that should really matter. He was a client. In their wills, my parents named the partners at Francis & Co as executor. In 1987 Francis & Co became absorbed into another solicitors company, Mills & Reeve. The Law Gazette described this process as a merger, however in the business world the term ‘merger‘ often describes a takeover. Mills & Reeve has a very different flavour to Francis & Co - in a short space of time Mills & Reeve has expanded its business beyond its original base in East Anglia and now has offices in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. In 1987 my father was almost 70, presumably he failed to foresee the implications of this change to his named executors. On second death (which was the death of my mother, in 2005), I was to receive whatever property remained in Northern Ireland, where my grandfather had lived and worked. There were two properties remaining, a broken-down shop and a small terraced house in the street behind the shop, but I didn‘t know any of this - I’d lost touch with what property my father had still owned. Mills and Reeve identified the shop as part of the estate, but failed to identify the house. The Mills & Reeve partner named as executor (at a charged hourly rate of £270), had not thoroughly checked the deed of assent he issued to me. The schedule of the deed of assent named only the shop. But attached to the deed was a map, which indicated other property including the terraced house. Mills & Reeve had outsourced the Northern Ireland work to Sheldon & Stewart (Belfast) on the grounds of a declared incompetence in the area of Northern Ireland law. For one thing, I didn’t understand how Mills & Reeve could be so incompetent in Northern Ireland law : Jill Mason, owner at Mills & Reeve, received her law degree at Queen’s Belfast. At least one other member of staff was likewise at Queen’s. In 2008 a Mills & Reeve employee advised in the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ on the residential housing market. In 2009 another employee wrote a report in ’Lexology’ involving Northern Ireland law. For another thing, I had previously raised queries about Sheldon & Stewart’s work and had warned Mills & Reeve that everything from Sheldon & Stewart should be checked. The advice I received from Mills & Reeve was that if I wasn’t happy with any of the work, I could always have it checked myself. In all the seven years it took Mills & Reeve to settle the estate, this was the best piece of advice they ever gave me. I did make my own enquiries, and eventually did prove that the property in question should have formed part of the estate. But Mills & Reeve having taken almost two years to produce the defective deed of assent, the further time taken up with my own enquiries meant that the property could not be sold within the four years specified by the HMRC for loss on inheritance tax repayment - I suffered a loss on sale, but was not eligible to reclaim overpaid inheritance tax. When eventually I was able to state categorically that the property should have formed part of the estate, Mills & Reeve replied that Sheldon & Stewart (their sub-contractors) were the people with knowledge of the history of ownership and suggested that any enquiry be instead addressed to that firm. In other words, Mills & Reeve went into denial. Their reply added a final gem of advice : “I would say that just because the property is unoccupied it could be dangerous to assume that it belongs to you, if it is in the (possibly forgotten) ownership of someone else you could be accused of trespass.” In March 2011, I made a formal complaint to the Legal Ombudsman (case 201016882), part of the complaint being that Mills & Reeve’s failure to identify the terraced house had resulted in a missed opportunity to claim ‘loss on sale’ inheritance tax relief. No apology has ever been received for this failure, in fact Mills & Reeve have not at any time accepted that they failed. On the contrary, the firm vigorously contested the Legal Ombudsman case. I was left with the feeling that if Mills & Reeve had applied even half as much diligence to checking the assets of the estate, there wouldn’t have been a need for a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman at all. In other words it appeared that Mills & Reeve put more emphasis on covering their tracks when things went wrong than on getting the job done right in the first place. And in attempting to answer criticism that it had taken almost two years to produce a defective deed of assent, Mills & Reeve responded : “…confirms that she informed you of the delays in Mills & Reeve obtaining information from third parties. Mills & Reeve cannot be held responsible for these.” So Mills & Reeve outsourced its business to other firms and then had absolutely no control over what those firms did ? That was just plain nonsense. Amongst Mills & Reeve’s representations in their defence to the Legal Ombudsman, they made an error with my mother’s date of death. When acting as an executor, errors don’t come more basic than that. I was partially successful in my complaint to the Legal Ombudsman. But my experience is that the whole process can be as unpredictable as litigation. You have to agree up front that the Ombudsman’s decision is final. And the reason given by the Ombudsman for awarding me damages wasn’t the failure by Mills & Reeve to match up property schedule and map at all, it was because their whole process of producing a faulty deed of assent had taken too long. In other words the Legal Ombudsman didn’t accept that Mills & Reeve had adequately managed their sub-contractors (it had in fact been a game of monthly letter tennis, all chargeable to the estate). I conducted my own defence in the Legal Ombudsman complaint. If you are prepared to do likewise, I would recommend to anyone to do the same, whether you think you might win or not. If the Ombudsman doesn’t believe you have a case, you won’t be able to get started, but otherwise you can chew up so much time and resources of the company you’re complaining about (all non-chargeable) that you get a good deal of satisfaction whatever the outcome. Mills & Reeve’s administration expenses for the estate (inclusive of VAT) : £14,414.51, Subcontractors’ expenses came to an additional £6,143.02 Mills & Reeve even charged £197.40 (inclusive of VAT) for sending bills over the seven year period. Except that the bills weren’t needed (the solicitors had retained funds from the estate) other than to satisfy Mills & Reeve’s own legal obligations. In summary. 1) When making a will, don’t name as executor a solicitor. However much you might trust that individual, by the time you die, he or she may no longer be around. In fact it may no longer be the same company. There surely have to be family members or close friends who are more reliable. 2) If possible, but still leaving yourself with sufficient resources, give away money and property before you die. Some of this might still be taxable, depending upon the interval between the gift and your death, but the tax levy would be at a reduced rate. 3) Don’t have any dealings with Mills & Reeve. Look up also the details of Swain Mason v Mills & Reeve. Mills & Reeve eventually extricated themselves without being required to pay damages. But there are echoes of my own experience - that the appearance of having done no wrong is more important to Mills & Reeve than being thorough in the first place. A better solicitor might well have given better advice in that case, and no complaint would have ever been required.
Report this review By Andy Hamilton 08/01/2013
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