After vociferously arguing to the government that will writing should be regulated by statute to protect the public from estate-planning cowboys last year, STEP has launched its own code.
Described as a ‘gold standard’, the code sets out a series of ethical principles that STEP members must follow. It makes barely any mention of technical expertise – after all, members must pass four demanding exams so they really should know what they are doing.
It comes about six months after the Law Society announced its own quality mark, the Wills and Inheritance Quality Scheme (WIQS). Unlike the mighty WIQS, which is 83 pages long, the STEP code takes up a mere seven pages. But is it any the poorer for that?
WIQS appears to be much more prescriptive than the STEP code, presumably because there is no underlying qualification. For example, the WIQS guidance on mental capacity goes on for two and a half pages and sets out the case law and legal tests in some detail.
By contrast, the STEP code has four paragraphs on this subject, simply setting out the professional obligations. The legal knowledge is taken as read and, indeed, forms a key part of the exam syllabus.
This means that the STEP code is much simpler for practitioners to formally adopt. All we really have to do is keep doing what we are doing. Solicitors who wish to sign up to WIQS will have to formally apply, pay a fee and adhere to detailed and strict criteria.
The STEP code simply requires members to take notes of instructions – the content and format is left up to the practitioner.
By contrast, WIQS not only sets out a checklist of information that must be included but also requires the practice to have a written policy about attendance notes.
Arguably, the shorter document is more client-friendly. If a client is concerned about something their solicitor has or has not done, it will be much easier for them to pinpoint whether and how the code has been breached.
STEP already has a long-standing code of professional conduct, which is more general applying to all practice areas. STEP describes this as a “common central spine” that will be supplemented by further mini-codes relating to specific areas of practice.
Therefore, the will-writing code appears to be the first of several specific ones.