What’s the story with solicitors’ complaints and LeO?

The Legal Services Board have published an interesting summary of research on the legal services market which is well worth a read. Especially if you a member of the legal profession, aren’t really up for the vigorous competition coming your way and like getting depressed about the future. There is, though, one possible good news story which deserves a bit of attention which is an apparently dramatic reduction in the number of complaints made against solicitors.

In general the level of complaints against solicitors has been travelling inexorably upwards for years. The trend continued up until the creation of the Legal Ombudsman (LeO). In the year prior to its creation the Legal Complaints Service, which dealt with solicitors’ complaints, received close to 21,000 complaints. In the first six months of its operation, LeO accepted 3,768 complaints. Not all of those would be against solicitors. One would have expected, all things being equal, for them to have had about 10,500 complaints against solicitors in a six month period. The obvious question is, why is the number so low?

The discontinuity is not remarked upon in the Legal Ombudsman’s report. Which states this with regard to the figures:

In the six months since we opened, 38,155 people contacted us by phone, email and letter. Of these, we accepted 3,768 complaints into the Ombudsman scheme for investigation.

We saw high volumes of contacts initially, which we think is due to the publicity we achieved around our launch and also possibly to a pent-up demand, with people choosing to wait to contact a new, independent, Ombudsman scheme rather than complaining under the old arrangements. There is also a seasonal variation to the numbers of people contacting us. We are monitoring the volumes of contacts and cases closely, but these statistics suggest that it is too early to tell what volumes we will see in the future.”

The story this tells is of pent up demand, not demand having dissipated dramatically. It may be that LeO is taking a very much more robust view on consumer complaints (there were 38,155 contacts from potential complainants by phone email of letter). It may be that LeO has a lower profile than the SRA or Law Society has had (and by virtue of that the Legal Complaints Service may itself have had) but other data suggests that LeO’s profile is quite high with the general public; so whilst that may be part of the explanation it is probably not all of it.

It may also be possible, that this reflects an improvement in first tier complaints handling by solicitors or a dramatic reduction in the the underlying volume of complaints. The significant contraction in the residential conveyancing market, in particular, would have affected complaints levels but it is difficult to see how this could lead to such a dramatic reduction. Similarly, a conversion to the virtues of client centred complaint practices of the strength necessary to affect this kind of drop in the numbers would have to be positively Damascene. The explanation must be either to do with consumer behaviour being affected by LeO taking over and/or a significant difference in the way LeO deals with would-be complainants. As a major driver of the legal service reform was the (alleged, but rather well -evidenced) inability of the solicitors’ profession to deal with its own complaints, one would expect the reason for the drop to be investigated thoroughly and the reasons for it either proclaimed as evidence of the success of a new regime (if these figures continue) or as a signal that something else is going on.

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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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11 Responses to What’s the story with solicitors’ complaints and LeO?

  1. es145 says:

    My guess is that Solicitors are dealing with claims a lot better. One canny trick is to offer a reduction on the fee. Usually resolves issues.
    One problem with LeO is that they handle complaints on a basis which has nothing to do with OFR and everything to do with how the client felt about the service. Therefore Solicitors should spend more time on explaining to the client what is happening and what is to happen (No Surprises) and then complaints will drop. It’s about the journey not the result.
    On another point where are the new entrant, huge, all consuming ABSs? What are they waiting for?

  2. Jasmine Edmonds says:

    My guess is that the Legal Ombudsman has not accepted very many complaints because of its scheme rules and in particular the stringent time limits for making complaints. See http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/in-practice/legal-ombudsman/we-need-make-ombudsman-scheme-fairer. The consultation is now underway. (http://www.legalombudsman.org.uk/aboutus/consultations.html)

    The Legal Ombudsman does not accept complaints outside of their time limits even where allegations of dishonesty have been made.

    It may well be that many people would not agree to the terms stipulated by the Legal Ombudsman for accepting a complaint and refuses to sign the declaration. (See complaint form at http://www.legalombudsman.org.uk/consumer/index.html) or it could be that when consumers are directed to section 151 and 152 of the Legal Services Act they discover it is not in their best interests to use the services of the Legal Ombudsman.

    It could be that consumers have discovered that unless they have suffered a financial loss, there is little point going to the Ombudsman as the scheme is designed to put customers “back into the position they were in” before the poor service. It may be that they have been told the Legal Ombudsman does not deal with negligence even though their compensation limit is £30,000 and will not necessarily refund all their fees or award an adequate level of compensation and interest which reflects the level of distress and inconvenience as a court would.

    It maybe that consumers prefer a more formal process where they learn what representations the solicitor made in response to their complaints.

    Having used the service I can think of many reasons why consumers would not want to use the Legal Ombudsman.

    There is a reason why Desmond Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society said in the following article ‘[We] wonder whether LeO is moving from its initial and welcome semi-informal route of resolution of consumer complaints to a much more formal adjudicator-style approach. If so that would be unfortunate. (http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/leo-plans-rise-compensation-maximum)

    The formal adjudicator-style approach he refers to is similar to that employed by the Legal Complaints Service and resulted in many solicitors being referred to the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Law Society must have thought all their Christmas’s had come at once when they read the Legal Services Act and the Legal Ombudsman scheme rules.

    In my honest opinion, the Act was put in place to protect the interests of the legal profession and the Law Society and so far is doing an admirable job as evidenced by the dramatic reduction in the number of complaints accepted rather than made against solicitors.

    .

  3. We saw a real spike in complaints for a 12 month period and since then they have dwindled. I think that all legal providers are getting better at dealing with complaints properly and then looking at the root cause and seeing if they can be avoided in future.

    In my opinion this would not have happened without the creation of the Legal Ombudsman who have forced all lawyers to re-think complaints.

  4. South London Beak says:

    I declare an interest here as I was formerly a member of the Board of the Legal Complaints Service. My view of LeO has never been high and much as I would like to believe that my fellow solicitors have suddenly improved their service and complaints handling, I fear that the truth is simply that LeO is doing a lousy job. From the very beginning the sucessor organisation refused to take good advice and experience from LCS. In it’s effort to avoid being ‘tainted’ it threw the baby out with the bathwater. LCS was a highly successful organisation despite only having a short life. It had excellent working relationships with consumer groups and kept the Law Society at arms length as much as it was able. What a shame all it’s good work is now going to waste.

  5. Jasmine Edmonds says:

    Yes South London Beak, the Legal Complaints Service did themselves proud, not one single prosecution of a solicitor that tried to cheat the miners out of their compensation. Good work.

    You say the Legal Complaints Service “had excellent working relationships with consumer groups and kept the Law Society at arms length as much as it was able” and herein is where I believe the fundamental problem with regulation of the legal services profession lies.

    The Legal Complaints Service held itself out to be an independent organisation and the Board had a duty to both consumers and solicitors to ensure that the organisation fiercely maintained its independence. It clearly failed and acted to “make [its] assets work for the Law Society” rather than provide an impartial complaint handling service to whom consumers could turn, which is no doubt why the LeO “refused to take good advice and experience from LCS”.

    The independence of the institutions regulating the legal profession is of critical importance to society as a whole because it is the independence of the regulator that instils the trust and confidence in the profession and allows consumers to trust their solicitor “to the ends of the earth”.

    Not unlike News Corporation, The Law Society and the Bar Council are very powerful and influential “institutions” who do not like their power challenged and having their interests put at risk and we have already witnessed their attempts to use that influence to rein in the powers of the LSB.

    My fear is that the truth is simply that the LeO has already succumbed to the will of the Law Society and its members to maintain the status quo and from what I can see, the law allows them to do this to a greater degree than even the LCS.

    I suspect in a few short years, we will return to the recommendations of Clementi and realise that it was an error to create the SRA and ringfence the regulatory functions of the Law Society and that there was indeed an inherent need for an institutional separation of the regulatory and representative functions to ensure that the public are protected from risk and that there will be yet another rebalancing of the system in which the LeO will be abolished, as was the OSS, the CCS and the LCS before them.

    • Richard Moorhead says:

      Quite a few solicitors have been referred to the SDT by the SRA See here for example: http://www.39essex.com/docs/articles/MinersCompensationCasesDisciplinaryUpdate.pdf

      How many of those came through the LCS first I couldn’t say.

      • Jasmine Edmonds says:

        With respect Richard, herein lies another problem with regulation of the legal services profession which has an impact on the integrity of the profession as a whole and that is the belief that a referral to the SDT amounts to “justice”. It does not.

        We are all equal before the law, even solicitors and chief executives of powerful news organisations and a referral to the courts would have been more appropriate in the cases of some of the solicitors involved.

        MP’s had to resort to using parliamentary privilege to highlight the treatment the miners received from the solicitors involved in order to force a comprehensive review of the situation.

        The Legal Services Complaints Commissioner was highly critical of the LCS and the SRA and noted in her Special Report (Investigation into the handling of the Coal Health Compensation Scheme complaints by the Legal Complaints Service and the Solicitors Regulation Authority, January 2008) “the small number of referrals made to SDT is disappointing result given the gravity and extent of the misconduct involved”.

        The LCS and the SRA had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the process and I found the behaviour of both organisations to be morally repugnant.

        If you want to understand some of the background to the current changes relating to personal injury referral fees, then what happened in the cases of the miners would be a good place to start and you might also find it of some interest that Deborah Evans, the outgoing Chief Executive of the LCS chose to take up the position of CEO of the Association of Personal Injury lawyers when the service closed down.

        Unfortunately you will find it enormously difficult to find a copy of any of the material published by the LSCC online, so I’ll email you a copy so you can see the numbers affected by the actions of the LCS for yourself.

      • A freedom for information act request of the SRA revealed that in 2009, 90% of complaints about solicitors were not upheld and in fact only 2% got as far as an SDT. Perhaps the public have just given up complaining about solicitors if there is a 98% chance that their complaint will not end in a penalty for the solicitor? I am blogging about my experiences with the SRA at http://thomasEggarSRAcomplaint.blogspot.co.uk/ as file a complaint with them.

  6. Jasmine Edmonds says:

    “Since 2003, and up to the point of the latest OLSCC investigation, LCS had received 1,792 complaints from miners and their families “. (OLSCC Coal Health Audit took place between 12 September 2007 and 12 October 2007) (Page 14 of 44 of the report I just sent you)

  7. Jasmine Edmonds says:

    Richard, I could be wrong but it would appear that the Chief Ombudsman has attempted to address your concerns relation to the dramatic reduction in complaints handled by the Legal Ombudsman on his blog entitled “suitably signposted?” – its a bit difficult to find as there is no search engine on the site so here is the text:

    “The other day I read an article speculating about complaint volumes seen by us since we opened. The article closes with a challenge to look at the reasons. There may, of course, be some obvious causes. The coal health cases that flooded into the LCS late in their life have, for the large part, been resolved. And we’re also in the middle of a recession, so we’ve seen a 50% drop in complaints about buying and selling houses compared with our predecessor bodies.

    But those of us who have been in the Ombudsman game long enough know that there is no direct correlation between numbers of transactions in the market and numbers of complaints.

    So what else is going on?

    We’re faced with two stats that, on the face of it, seem contradictory, but could well help us get to the bottom of this issue. Then, of course, there is the question of what we need to do about it – but I’ll get to my challenge to the legal profession in a minute

    Our first stat is that we’re waiving more case fees than we originally anticipated. We’ll forgive you if haven’t spent time poring over the workings of the case fee. Simply put, Parliament put in place some rules so that if a lawyer has cooperated with us, and also done all they could to remedy a complaint at the first tier, we can waive our £400 charge. And it seems that, quite often (though by no means a majority of the time) we do waive this charge. We shouldn’t get carried away with this – these are only indicative data after all – but there may be some grounds for concluding that one of the reasons why we’re seeing less business is that lawyers are doing better at handling complaints at the first tier.

    Our last two quarters of customer satisfaction results show that only 34.5% of respondents who had had their complaint investigated by us had been made aware of the Legal Ombudsman by their lawyer. And in fewer cases still had they been signposted – the primary way that complainants should find their way to us (more frequently, even if they were told about us by the lawyer, they used a web search to find our details).

    Of course, again these are only early indications. But in contrast with the hits that first tier complaint handling is better, this second stat hints there may be a real signposting problem, creating a potential barrier to legal services customers accessing redress.

    As an Ombudsman, things are never black and white – I live in a world of grey. Our volumes will always remain an obsession for me as a manager: I have to make sure I run an efficient service which is able to scale up and down as demand varies. As someone interested in what the volumes say about what is going on in the wider legal world, I remain somewhat confused

    And we cannot simply throw our hands up and sit back helplessly. We need to do something about it. We’re pushing on with an awareness raising campaign addressed both at lawyers and consumers, so hopefully you’ll spot us in the consumer press in the coming weeks and months. And we’re encouraging the regulators and professional bodies to look at this issue – supplemented by some further research we’re doing to try and identify the barriers that may be thrown up at the first tier. But really, it is up to the profession to decide what actually happens; it is lawyer, rather than consumer behaviour, which determines our workload.”

    http://www.legalombudsman.org.uk/blog.html

  8. Pingback: Jasmine edmonds | Keikohiraoka

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