Beth, you’ve had a very successful and varied career to date. Could you tell us how you arrived at where you are today, including Fellowship studies with CILEx?
I started as an estate agent in the 1980s (wearing a nylon suit!). Luckily, after a year, a conveyancer came in looking for work and ended up employing me! On the day I went for the interview, he said: “I don’t know if I’m going to offer you the job or not, but go up to Swindon college right now and sign up to the Institute of Legal Executives course”. I had absolutely no idea what that was, but I followed his instructions and fortunately he gave me the job! Six years later, I qualified as a Fellow. From there, I became a conveyancer and then moved on to volume conveyancing and then back into high-street conveyancing, helping a company to develop their case-management system. Then I became a consultant, which was really the springboard for all of my learning. I have been lucky enough to be able to work with a variety of different clients and help them to improve their offerings for the conveyancing process and for the consumer.
You’re currently Director of Delivery for the Conveyancing Association – could you tell us a little bit about the Association?
It’s a trade body and our members now number about 75. They are serious conveyancers within the sector. There are some big-volume players, but it is open to all who demonstrate that they have something to bring to the party. Across all of our conveyancer members, we do about 30 percent of transactions in England and Wales. That’s really exciting, as when we want to improve processes like technical/cyber protocol, we can have a big impact. The best thing: at the beginning of the year, I asked our members to vote as to whether our remit was to improve the home-moving process for the members or improve it for all and they voted unanimously for the latter… so that’s what we’re setting out to do!
The case of Brabners vs HMRC has caused quite a stir in the conveyancing sector. Could you explain the facts of the case?
It’s a complex case that essentially revolves around the payment of VAT on search data. The issue here was that the search had been ordered electronically and the tribunal believed that VAT (around £64,000) should have been paid. The contended point was the Law Society’s agreement with HMRC that searches count as a disbursement and therefore not applicable to pass on the VAT as you would with professional services. It was held that the Law Society’s agreement only specifically referred to postal searches and not electronic searches.
Is the decision binding and what does it mean for conveyancing firms and consumers?
It’s a first-tier tribunal case and therefore not binding; it’s just an indication of HMRC thinking and what the judiciary may come out and say if there are additional cases further down the line. However, it was in conflict with the decision in a previous case back in 2011 that dealt with medical records. People need to realise that VAT is going to be an issue. There was a change to the VAT on CON29 at the beginning of the year and we need to ensure we don’t endanger conveyancers or clients later having a clawback on VAT. One thing I’ve always thought: it’s not fair that clients are charged the same whether they conduct three or seven searches. Why not instead charge a search-administration fee that includes the professional costs of carrying out the searches? That then of course attracts VAT and includes the disbursement within it – a much fairer charging model, plus a conveyancer is covering themself for the VAT element.
We need the Law Society to issue their guidance and then we hope trade associations and representative bodies will work together to issue some consistent advice for consumers. In the meantime, the Conveyancing Association is considering the draft proposal. The biggest issue is obviously consumer detriment; we do not want to be adding another 20 percent if it is not in their best interests. However, I’m sure we’d all agree: a surprise bill following the purchase of a property is not in a consumer’s best interests either.