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Claire Barker

Claire Barker is getting used to acting as a spokesperson on the equity-release business. “It is something I have really enjoyed so far. It is really important that we do get our message out so I am very happy to come out and talk to people and push the message that we are here and ready to do business and will do it in a sensible way.”

Barker is chairman of the Equity Release Solicitors Alliance which launched to the public in January this year but it has just celebrated its first birthday, having been set up last summer.

She describes the work of Ersa as a combination of raising consumer awareness of, and confidence in, equity release and acting as a lobbying organisation.

Barker has been a driving force behind the creation of the organisation and says it was born out of a desire to protect the reputation of equity release and provide a forum for specialist equity-release solicitors to promote their area of expertise. An increase in the number of solicitors “dabbling” in equity release to offset a decline in mainstream conveyancing business as the mortgage market collapsed also spurred Barker into action.

“There seemed to be firms diversifying into equity release as conveyancing took a knock and people started to dabble and obviously we want to protect the reputation of equity release.”

Despite her background and training as a general solicitor willing to turn her hand to any legal issue, she says equity release is not an area that suits that approach. “Any general practice can offer to do the conveyancing work and we think that is quite dangerous. Solicitors looking at diversification treat it like a remortgage in some instances, and it is not a remortgage, it is a different kettle of fish entirely.”

Barker says there are a number of other issues that solicitors have to take into account when working on equity release. “Sometimes, you are going to get a situation where the client has had the product sold to them over the phone. If the solicitor treats it like a remortgage and does it all by post and phone as well, you have got potential issues of duress, mental capacity, all the sort of attendant elder client issues, so you have to treat it more cautiously.

“Solicitors should not dabble. When I trained, you would have a crack at anything came through the door and that has very much moved on. Firms tend to compartmentalise and specialise now, as you can’t know everything.”

This path to specialism is something that Barker chose early on in her career. In addition to her role at Ersa, she is a partner at specialist equity-release solicitors Equilaw.

After her first job as a trainee solicitor, she joined solicitors Rickerbys and soon after moved into what has become her specialism. “Quite early on, about 2001, we identified equity release as an area we wanted to get into. We started building up the team gradually, with just me and my assistant and then we grew it and grew it.”

As the equity-release practice grew, the decision was taken to rebrand as Equilaw and then in April 2008 Equilaw was set up as an independent firm. It is still owned and managed by Rickerbys but is now a separate limited liability partnership, headed by Barker.

At its peak, the business employed a total of 23 staff. This has been cut back to 11 in the last year or so but Barker says the firm is about to start recruiting again.

“We are just at the stage of re-recruiting, so we would bear out the findings of Ship which show a glimmer of hope. I would not say green shoots. We have managed to stay afloat, we have had to cut our cloth like every other business but we are still there and we are surviving it.”

Barker has been chairman of Ersa since its inception and says she intends to stay in the position for “as long as they’ll have me” and while she jokes that her duties as chairman can occasionally feel like herding cats, she seems to be enjoying the role.

Ersa includes seven equity-release specialist solicitors and meets once a month and close to the top of their list of priorities is the reputation of equity release.

“The other thing we wanted to do was promote the idea that equity release is a safe and regulated product to consumers, as we still think the reputation is suffering and our clients still find it slightly stigmatised, so we wanted to make consumers more comfortable with it.”

Last week, equity release came in for more criticism from Which?, this time over the quality of the financial advice given to prospective clients.

Barker describes this as “disappointing”, given the range of tools and information available to advisers, but she says the findings may be explained by a lack of clarity over whether advisers were being asked generally for information or specifically for advice.

In fact, despite the criticism, Barker says: “There has never been a better time to get into equity release, with the tools that are available and the training courses. There is a huge amount of help out there, so hopefully this will be the nudge that the industry needs to get themselves sorted out.”

Barker says the demand for advice is certainly there. Recent figures from Safe Home Income Plans suggest the number of plans taken out in the second quarter of this year has increased by 5 per cent from the first three months of the year and Barker says this echoes the experience of her firm.

Ageing populations, a shortfall in retirement income and the need to meet the costs of long-term care, as set out by the Government’s recent Green Paper, also present commercial opportunities.

Barker says figures from Ersa suggest that equity release still has some way to go to become the aspirational product that some people predict it will become. She says the most common use for equity release is home improvements, followed by debt consolidation.

But it is a product that needs expert advice and if there is a need for financial advice, there is also a need for legal advice. “If you go on the view that equity-release demand will increase, there will be a need for solicitors to be able to do it so homeowners have access to sensible legal advice.”

Born: Leicester, 1974

Lives: Gloucestershire

Education: Law degree – University of Hertfordshire, followed by post-graduate diploma in legal practice at College of Law, Guildford

Career: June 2008— present: director and chairman, Equity Release Solicitors Alliance; 2004-present: partner, Rickerbys, Equilaw created 2007 and separate LLP set up in April 2008; 2000-04: solicitor, Rickerbys, Cheltenham; 1997-2000 – trainee solicitor Hunnybun & Sons

Likes: Dogs, fast cars and enthusiasm

Dislikes: People carriers, bad grammar and disingenuous people

Drives: BMW coupe

Book: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Film: Withnail & I

Album: Black Boots on Latin Feet by Ezio

Career ambition: To help equity release to be seen as a totally acceptable, mainstream product

Life ambition: To own an Aston Martin

If I wasn’t doing this I would be…Either racing touring cars (in my dreams) or working for the Dogs Trust

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