Don’t complain: OFT come back for a look at legal services

An old OFT report was one of the precursors to the Legal Services Act. It has just published a report on legal services regulation taking stock, post  implementation.  Some of the interesting points are:

  • Out of an estimated 3 million annual users of legal services, 460,000 were likely to be dissatisfied.  They suggest low levels then going on to complain (13%) (although it should be noted by way of context that LeO received about 75,000 enquiries last year).  The most common reasons for being put off are not thinking it will be worth the time it would take and lack of understanding or clarity about who to complain to.  The standard criticisms made about the way firms inform (or not) clients about complaints procedures are part of the evidence base.
  • Interestingly there is also a chart suggesting ability to complain to an independent body may make some consumers more likely to use legal services (p.167).  Though it focuses on quite a narrow group of consumers, it is still an interesting point.
  • Some good news is that Leo and Approved regulator costs for complaints amount to 0.1% of industry turnover (client and firm costs of complaints are not of course factored in). and  that the Legal Ombudsman is estimated to have reduced costs of complaints handling by £18million.  This might be due to handling rather fewer complaints than existed pre-LeO but there is also some evidence of (modest) increases in general satisfaction with complaint handling in the public surveys.
  • Of those that are dissatisfied with their lawyers who do complain, 56% were generally positive about the process.
  • There are some nice diagrams of the complexities of the complaints/regulatory system and the more critical comments of the report are reserved for critiquing this complexity.  The divided treatment of conduct and service complaints is one area which particularly excites OFTs concern; As is, from the consumer perspective, the rather arbitrary definition of when complaints fall within or without LeOs jurisdiction .  Unsurprisingly, the Legal Services Board has backed this as a call for a simpler complaints regime.  The divide between conduct and service complaints has historically been a problematic one and not something  well understood by consumers or, it might be argued, some working within regulators.

The other areas of concern which appear to be significant to the OFT are the slow application process for ABSs (a rather prosaic issue for the OFT, I’d have thought) and the bottleneck in pupillage applications.  They suggest ABSs may alleviate this by, for instance, funding BPTC and/or pupillages.  I am struggling to see this coming to pass; no doubt paucity of imagination on my part – the Inns and (possibly) the Bar Standards Board, might be reluctant to cede any control.  Also the report suggests allowing barristers to supervise two pupils not one.   This might work in ABS type organisations, were it permitted, but in chambers the shortage of tenancies might well mean there is little to be gained?

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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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