There was considerable disquiet earlier this year when it emerged that in some cases solicitors are entitled to keep the interest that is earned on an estate while it is being settled.
It was a chartered accountant from Ayr, Jim Clarke, who first raised the issue when he discovered his solicitor would be keeping the interest earned on his mother's estate in the six months it took to process.
Mr Clarke was rightly disturbed by this news and in the months since he first took the case to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission and it was thrown out, it has gathered momentum and been taken up by concerned MSPs.
At first, the Law Society of Scotland was firm in its defence of the practice but has now thankfully accepted that a review is needed. The society says it will be consulting externally as part of the review and in particular will be looking at the client interest threshold below which solicitors are permitted to keep any interest earned.
Until now, the Law Society of Scotland's defence has rested on a rather questionable premise: that solicitors are entitled to keep the interest earned on an account to cover the administration and other costs of setting up that account for their client.
Were solicitors to charge for this service, the society has said, it would come to more than the interest earned while the estate was being settled - the implication being that solicitors are actually saving their clients money by keeping the interest.
This rather misses the point, which is that the charges a solicitor levies on their clients should be clear and upfront. In other words, if a solicitor needs to charge for the administration costs of setting up an account for inheritance purposes, then that solicitor should say so and show the amount clearly on the client's statement.
In reviewing the practice, one option the Law Society of Scotland might want to consider is bringing their practice into line with the system in England, where any interest over £20 must be paid to the client. In Scotland, the amount is £100. Admittedly, the amounts under both systems are not huge and any solicitor who keeps interest under £100 is acting entirely within the rules laid down by the Law Society of Scotland. But the size of the interest payments is not the point (in Mr Clarke's case, the interest earned on his mother's estate was under £70). Ending the entitlement to keep interest, however small, and replacing it with a charge for account administration would make the system clearer and fairer for everyone.
Even if the Law Society of Scotland's review does decide in the end that the practice of keeping interest should be allowed to continue, much greater transparency is required. In England, clients have to be made aware of a firm's policy on interest - solicitors in Scotland should be subject to the same requirement. If the interest on estates is making money for solicitors - no matter how small the amounts - we all have the right to know about it.
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