Client complaints – the Untouchable Syndrome

YouGov’s research into First-Tier Complaints Handling for the Legal Services Board has been published. It’s a generally depressing read. The report looks at users of legal services who were dissatisfied with the service they received and whether and how they complained. In particular, its aim is to ascertain whether the introduction of the Legal Ombudsman has had a significant impact on complaints handling and, in particular, whether the professions (solicitors in particular) are complying with their obligations to inform clients of their rights to complain. Key findings include the following:

  • In total 33 per cent of respondents who were dissatisfied with the service they received made a formal complaint to their service provider.
  • At engagement, one in five said they were not told anything about costs, the complaints procedure, timescales and so on.
  • The main cause of dissatisfaction stemmed from delay(43%) followed by poor quality of service (42%). For just over a third, dissatisfaction arose as a result of perceived incompetence with legal firms making mistakes (e.g. incorrect spelling of names to putting completely wrong names and addresses on legal documents). Interestingly, costs did not seem to be a main cause of complaint.
  • The respondents appeared to have learnt what every trainee solicitors learns within a week or so in the office: “What came across quite often was that consumers were led to believe a senior member of the firm would be dealing with their case, only to find that it was being handled by a junior member or trainee”.
  • “The notion of a meter running. was also a contributor to respondents dissatisfaction as any communication made by respondents with their legal firm would have to be financially accounted for.”
  • The notion that clients claim at the drop of a hat is rather doubted by the researchers: 22% didn’t do anything when dissatisfied: many felt it wasn’t worth it and others were so fed up with the whole process that they just let it go. For some (24%) cost was a barrier.
  • Interestingly, and worryingly, 16% said they were charged for making a complaint.

The good news for the profession and the LSB is that the data suggests that the way in which complaints are being dealt with may have improved since the introduction of the Legal Ombudsman. It also suggests some evidence to support the profession’s view that advising about complaints processes at the outset leads to more complaints, whilst – interestingly – good costs advice militates against complaints:

“What the results seem to be suggesting is that that awareness of costs upfront may result in consumers being less likely to complain and the more informed consumers are at the outset about the internal complaints procedure, the more likely they may be to follow through with a complaint.”

Of course the critical issue is not whether informing clients about complaints reduces or increases complaints, but whether those complaints are justified. The clients had picked up on the profession’s view on that with the report talking of a “Superiority complex on behalf of legal professionals –the ‘untouchable syndrome” and “informal complaints made, were often simply rejected or dismissed without any acknowledgement of error.” Those complained against were seen as dismissive, defensive and looking after their own when dealing with complaints.

Firms were not so confident of their position on these complaints that they were advising clients they could go to the Ombudsman. Perhaps of most concern to the regulators was the evidence that dissatisfied first tier complainants were often not being told about the Legal Ombudsman inspite of a requirement to notify clients at the conclusion of the first-tier complaints process although, “Respondents who were dissatisfied with the outcome of their formal complaint were more likely to have not received information about a Legal Ombudsman than those who were satisfied with the outcome of their formal complaint (56% compared with 25%).” This might suggest that general dissatisfaction was impacting on whether they remembered being told about the Ombudsman or not.

An interesting question is whether particular types of provider are giving rise to more dissatisfaction than others. The YouGov study only concentrates on dissatisfied consumers of legal services. Some of their respondents bemoaned a lack of personal service. Service provision solely over the telephone and in writing was quite high, only 53 per cent of those dissatisfied stated the service was provided in person. It may be that clients dealing more with ‘remote’ providers of legal services are more likely to complaint. Interestingly, only about 1 in 5 of the accident/injury cases in their sample were dealt with by someone in person (most were dealt with by phone and writing); which fits with the reported changes in the personal injury claims business. This adds to the underlying theme emerging from the report, consistent with most studies on client perceptions of lawyers: that it is the personal touch, clear management of expectations, good costs advice and care with the basics of the client’s case, which minimise complaints.

For the regulators, I suspect the findings are unsurprising. After all the basic architecture of the current scheme was similar pre- and post- reform (save for the independence of the Legal Ombudsman). There is not much reason to think lawyers would suddenly get better at advising clients on complaints procedures. Solicitors firms were obliged to advise clients of their rights to complain under the old Rule 15. The research on that suggested some did, and some did not. Client care letters were complex and occasionally sarcastic documents which underlined the distance between lawyers as professionals and lawyers as service providers. Clients saw the them and the us of it then, and it seems, they still do (or rather those that are dissatisfied still do).

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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One Response to Client complaints – the Untouchable Syndrome

  1. sara kovach clark says:

    How depressing! I was there at the start of legal aid franchising and the most basic issue was always, “please tell your clients about costs, complaints procedures etc”. Why is that so hard? I understand the fear that telling people they can complain will make them complain (does it?) but a transparent service that says what you get, what you wont get and what it will cost you is much less likely to cause complaints in the end. A lot of the time it is lack of communication that causes clients frustration-you are unlikely to complain about lack of personal service if it is made clear you will be advised over the phone a lot to save costs. If solicitors are going to survive its the ones that work with their clients, tell them what they are going to do and then do it.

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