Chasing the money

Charles 1 Comment

Sometimes a google goosechase can take you to interesting places.

Where did I start? I wanted to find out the current average price of a simple funeral. I found a Guardian article which concluded with a tranche of good advice from Anne Wadey, author of the Which? publication What To Do When Someone Dies. Which?, we remind ourselves, is a consumer advocacy charity. At the foot of the article was a recommendation (not by Anne Wadey, oh no) of probate specialists Final Duties. Heard of them? You have now. Read this article about them in the Guardian here.

The NAFD has its own pet probate specialist umbrella-ed under its Bereavement Advice Centre (BAC), a not-for-profit organisation. Spin Profiles has this to say about the BAC:

The Bereavement Advice Centre claims to have been welcomed by a variety of organisations from health, funeral, legal and advice sectors and their policy committee oversees development of the service and includes clergy, hospital bereavement support, legal, care home, medical, funeral undertaking and local government representations.

The BAC publishes a leaflet called “What to do when someone dies“, which is widely available in registrars, where people go to register a death, and in some hospitals. The leaflet publicises a helpline which has been accused by solicitors of promoting BAC’s commercial owner ITC Legal Services. An article in the Law Society Gazette in June 2009 drew attention to the “financial links” between the Bereavement Advice Centre and ITC Legal Services. The article says the link has “come under fire from solicitors”. Patricia Wass, a partner at Plymouth firm Foot Anstey and chairwoman of the Law Society’s wills and equity committee, is quoted in the article as saying that she is concerned that registrars ‘up and down the country’ are giving BAC’s leaflets to people when they report a death. This might imply that local authorities sanction BAC’s promotion of ITC’s commercial interests.

Over at Thisismoney, here’s what they have to say on the matter: Registrars, GPs, hospitals, churches and funeral homes are all handing out leaflets advertising the Bereavement Advice Centre. The official-looking document appears to be for a free independent advice service. But those that call a free helpline or visit the website are pointed towards ITC Legal Services, one of the biggest probate providers in the UK. ITC’s fees can be much greater than similar services offered by local solicitors. In one case, a reader was quoted £2,400 by ITC, almost three times more than a local solicitor … Despite claiming its fees are competitive with solicitors and can be half that charged by banks, ITC’s charges can be hugely more expensive than services offered by trained lawyers. This is because the firm charges a percentage of the estate, unlike solicitors, which tend to charge an hourly rate. In Manchester, this ranges between £140 and £250. ITC charges from 2.5% for estates worth between £5,000 and £19,999 to 1% for estates worth £230,000 and above … Stewart Acton, 59, was given one of these leaflets when he went to Sale town Hall to register the death of his mother, Sheila. Thinking it was an official leaflet, he phoned the Bereavement advice centre. Days later, he was visited by a woman from ITC. Mr Acton says: ‘The girl said the firm would take care of everything and that if I went to a solicitor it would take a long time and the costs could be astronomical.’ The charge for ITC’s services was £2,400. Mr Acton got in touch with his neighbour, a solicitor, who said he would charge just £850 for the same service. He says: ‘When your mum dies, your head is in the clouds and you just go with it. These people are just coffin-chasers.’

The Head of the Bereavement Advice Centre is… Anne Wadey. The author of the latest edition of What To Do When Someone Dies would hardly seem to have impeccable non-aligned credentials.

I learnt something else interesting from Spin Profiles: In 2002 Helen Parker, editor of Which, commented: “We want to see all funeral directors in the UK signed up to a standard code of practice. The code should be monitored and enforced by an independent body.” In response, Alan Slater, ceo of the NAFD gave this assurance: “We are currently mid-way through the process of improving our code … Once finalised, the new code will be sent to the OFT.” The NAFD’s Slater said this in 2002. But as of February 2009, the NAFD code of practice has not been approved by OFT. In fact, none of the funeral trades associations’ codes of practice have been approved by OFT. Approval would mean that the codes of practice would be blessed by the Consumer Codes Approval Scheme, offering a much greater degree of assurance to consumers.

In search of better news I googled ITC Legal Services. Has it cleaned its act up? Oh dear, it hasn’t. Here’s a depressing story dated 9 June 2010.

To the consumer, this all looks very murky. I must now fire off emails to the NAFD and SAIF and see what they have to say for themselves.

PS Who is the informant behind these Spin Profiles, I hear you ask? It is none other than the indefatigable Teresa Evans. Hats off, please!


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