On the naughty step – Part 2: The cost of free

[Updated 12 June 2012]

This is the second of a couple of naughty step posts on 'free legal information' on the UK internet.

We were moving down through the hellish circles of 'free legal content', but as your reluctant Virgil, I must insist we jump a few circles to go directly to the centre of the pit

Satan in the pit

The Pit - 'Free Legal Information'

Law on the Web proclaims itself to be a 'Free Online Legal Information And Find A Solicitor Service'. What is more the site claims itself to be 'The UK’s Biggest Source Of Free UK Legal Information' (on a page headed 'Legal Advice'). In fact they say, under 'About Us':

The mission of Law on the Web is to help people get access to justice by helping them find the right legal advice. We want to help people understand their legal rights and find a good solicitor if they should need to do so.
We aim to be the best place to go in the UK to find a solicitor and to get helpful legal information.

Before we get to the content, let us just note that the site is owned by Everything Legal Limited, who are now owned by DAS UK Group, a large legal expenses insurer. The managing director of Everything Legal Ltd is Brad Askew, a former practising solicitor (no longer listed on the Law Society site). His linkedin profile still describes him as a 'lawyer'.

Let us also note that Everything Legal owns Claims Financial - a PPI claim farming site, amongst others.

Now, suppressing a slight shudder, to take a look at this 'helpful legal information'. There is a section for 'Landlord Law', which seems a good place to take a sample.

Under 'Evicting Tenants', there is this helpful information:

As a landlord, there may be occasions when you need to ask the tenants occupying your property to leave. If, however, the tenant refuses to go after the agreed notice period, you will have to take legal action. You must first serve your tenant a ‘notice of intention to seek possession’ to inform them that if they do not leave, you plan to go to court to obtain possession of the property. This notice must be given before you can apply to court for the possession order.

Once you do go to court, the court will decide whether or not to grant you a possession order based on evidence from both parties. If the order is granted, the court will set a date on which the tenants must vacate the property. If the tenant still refuses to leave, even after you have the possession order, you will have to go to county court and apply for a warrant of eviction, where the court will arrange for bailiffs to come and remove the tenants from the property.
If a possession order is not granted, the court will allow the tenant to stay in the property as long as they stick to the guidelines set out by the court.

Which obviously provides everything a landlord would need to obtain a possession order. Well, apart from being both vague and sort of wrong. For example, it is unlikely that the Court would give 'guidelines' if a possession order is not made, but may make conditions on a suspended possession order. Even then, this would not apply for mandatory grounds of possession or the accelerated possession procedure, where no suspended order would be made.

And better (or worse) yet, under 'Accelerated Possession'

If your tenant has an assured short hold tenancy agreement, which is now the most common tenancy agreement, you will be able to use the accelerated possession procedure, which will enable you to get possession of your property much quicker and will not require you to have a court hearing. This procedure can only be used if the tenant has a written tenancy agreement and you have given them at least two months notice that you require the property back. You cannot give notice before the end of a fixed term tenancy.

So not only vague, but actually wrong. Notice can be given at any time, but the date on which possession is required cannot be before the end of the fixed term. Following this information could lead to a two month delay for a landlord.

And under a page on Tenancy Deposit Schemes (which has actually been updated since mid April 2012 - I'll come back to this) we find this:

Under a deposit protection scheme the landlord in charge of the property must protect the deposit paid to them using either a custodial scheme or an insurance based scheme. The landlord has free reign over which of these two options they choose to use, but they must do it within 14 days for deposits made between 6 April 2007 and 6 April 2012, or within 30 days for deposits made after 6 April 2012. Meanwhile, the tenant should always make sure that they and the landlord have carried out and agreed on an inventory when the tenancy starts.

Under the provisions of any deposit protection scheme, the tenant can apply to the county court for a legal order that forces the return of the deposit if the landlord has failed to either return or adequately protect the deposit. The county court can also order the landlord to pay compensation to the tenant is sufficient wrongdoing has been committed.

For those deposits made after 6 April 2012, the tenant has guaranteed recourse even after the tenancy has ended, and the compensation the landlord must pay out will be between one and three times to deposit paid.

This is just wrong in ways that may well leave a landlord relying on it in something of a mess - look at that last sentence, for example.  All deposits taken after 6 April 2007 are, since 6 April 2012, subject to the amended rules, so that a tenant can claim after the tenancy has ended, so long as it ended after 6 April 2012. Any landlord relying on this inaccurate information would lose their case. The page also makes no mention that deposits taken between 6 April 2007 and 6 April 2012 had to be protected by 6 May 2012 or it would be too late to protect them and avoid a claim.

Or as a last example, from a page on 'Tenant's rights under Landlord Law':

Tenancy agreements
The tenants’ rights should be detailed in the tenancy agreement. The tenancy agreement is a formal written contract between a landlord and tenant which detail the rights and responsibilities each party has. Any rented property that doesn’t have a tenancy agreement leaves the tenant completely vulnerable. Any individual looking to rent a property and become a tenant should ensure there is a tenancy agreement in place and that it provides the relevant protection they require.

Again, with a heavy sigh, this is just wrong. While a formal written tenancy agreement is a very good idea, the absence of one does not leave the tenant completely vulnerable. Unless the tenancy falls under one of the exceptions, it will be an assured shorthold tenancy, with the same protection as a written agreement. In fact possibly better, as the landlord will find it difficult to use the accelerated possession procedure without a written agreement.

So, even from this sample, it is clear that the 'legal advice' provided is sometimes vague and imprecise to the point of being useless. At worst it is downright inaccurate in ways that may cause substantial problems for anyone, landlord or tenant, who relied upon it. I should be clear that these were just articles that I chose to look at. I wasn't searching for ones with problems. There are other pages with errors or serious lack of clarity. I'll leave you to find your own favourites.

Lawontheweb also provides 'Free Legal Documents'. Some landlord and tenant ones are on this page. I have only looked at a couple, but the Letter of Claim for failure to protect deposit is out of date and now wrong, and the assured shorthold tenancy agreement is, well, both basic and confusing, for example talking about notice periods in weeks for a monthly tenancy (and depending on which deposit scheme is used, quite possibly wholly insufficient for the scheme's requirements).

It is interesting that there have been some changes to the site since I started considering it in mid April 2012. The deposit scheme pages have been updated - they were wholly out of date after the 7 April 2012 changes - although as we've noted, they are still wrong.

Some of the 'articles' have an author name attached and there are 'author bios'. These are devoid of any useful information, like the legal experience of the author for example. Each of the bio pages contain a link to contact the author. However, all those links go to a single email - dbishop@claimsfinancial.co.uk (yes, that is the Claims Financial PPI claim farmer) - who was not one of the named authors.  For example, see 'David Mason' bio or 'Alistair Dursley'. None of the bios actually state that the author has any legal qualification or experience whatsoever, although apparently all are full of 'enthusiasm' for the law.

In a recent addition, there is a now link for people to submit their own 'High Quality Original Articles'. We saw something of what 'high quality original' content might mean in Part 1. But for a site that holds itself out as providing legal information, it is a surprise to see submission open to all.

Who, one might ask, checks these submissions. In fact, who is responsible for the standard and accuracy of the information on the site. As one might ask, I did so.

Back in mid April, I emailed every email address I could find on the site - the contact page, the press info address, dbishop at claims financial - with some questions:

Hello

I am the editor of a housing law website at
http://nearlylegal.co.uk/blog/ which has a substantial readership,
including landlord organisations and managing agents.

I am considering writing a piece about the law on the web 'legal
advice' landlord law pages at

http://www.lawontheweb.co.uk/Landlord_Law

And linked from that page.

I have a few questions. I would be grateful for a response.

1. Who wrote these pages? The authors are credited as a Paul Mason,
Colm Wolstencroft and Alistair Dursely. However, the 'contact the
author' links all result in an email to dbishop@claimsfinancial.co.uk

2. Whatever the answer to 1. what are the legal qualifications and
experience of the person or persons who wrote these pages?

3. Does this person or persons have experience in landlord and tenant law?

4. Please explain law on the web's procedure for ensuring that the
information on these pages is correct, including the legal
qualifications and experience of whoever is responsible for the
procedure.

5. How often is the information on the pages updated?

6. The site describes the information in these pages as 'legal
information' and 'legal advice'. It also provides 'legal documents'.
Does Everything Legal accept that visitors to the law on the web site
may rely upon the information and documents being accurate, and act on
that basis?

7. If a visitor relied upon the information and it was incorrect, is
law on the web or Everything Legal insured against any claim against
the site that may result?

I may have some further questions in the future.

I should make clear that any response may be published, in whole or in part.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours

NL

I never got a response, of any kind. I tried contacting Brad Askew via twitter (@Bradaskew) and also via @lawontheweb (strap line "Its ALL about access to justice"). Again, no response. I wasn't the only one asking questions either. Nobody got a response that I know of.

And here is the real issue. The 'legal information' provided is at least in part practically useless, and in part downright wrong. There is no indication whatsoever (at least on the current site) of the source of the information, or whether it is provided by someone experienced or knowledgeable in the subject (although that seems very doubtful).

Yet by insisting that it is providing 'helpful legal information' and helping people 'understand their legal rights', the site gives the clear impression that it is providing information that can be relied upon - the main information page is headed 'legal advice' after all. The documents, perhaps even more so, are held out to be relied upon. But some, at least, are out of date and/or inadequate.

Naughty StepThe suspicion has to be that the 'legal information' is there for search engine purposes, to attract people to the site to use the solicitor referral service (or be directed on to the PPI claims site or similar).  Certainly, it does not appear that a great deal of expertise was invested in the information. This appears to be cheap free stuff.

But for the visitor or user, the cost of free is potentially much more than just being directed to a referral site - if the information is wrong, as in part it is, and people rely on it, as they are encouraged to do, where is their redress?

I suspect such a person would not get very far with the 'contact us' box on the law on the web site. And there is nowhere else for them to go.  For these reasons, and for announcing that it is 'all about access to justice',  law on the web and Everything Legal Ltd go on the naughty step.

 [Update 12 June 2012. Since this post was put up, there have been some changes to the Law on the Web site. The 'author biographies' have been removed, just giving an error page. Articles no longer have an identified author on the article page.  Why do that?

The link inviting submission of 'high quality original articles' has been replaced by a link saying 'Become a Blogger' and "Join us if you have something to say – we are always interested in new guest bloggers."

Law on the web have also removed the two documents I referred to. Just those two, as far as I can tell.

However, the articles quoted above are currently still present, unaltered. I have screen grabs, just in case.]

Posted in Various (non-housing).

About Giles Peaker

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts, and still is Nearly Legal on Google +

3 Comments

  1. This is one reason why I think a solicitors logo would be a good idea. If there was a small but distinctive logo which bona fide solicitors could use on their sites, this would be a way for the public to easily tell if a site was trustworthy or not.

    It would have to be supported by promotion from the Law Society and people who used it without justification pursued – probably on the basis that they were holding themselves out to be solicitors when they were not.

    Something like this would I think be beneficial both to the public and to genuine solicitors firms. But I suspect that there is no chance that it will ever happen. I have raised the idea several times in the past.

  2. Pingback: Free ain’t easy : pinktape.co.uk

  3. Pingback: Binary Law · Wall of shame – vacuous and inaccurate free legal content

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