Solicitors should be granted two free hearings annually by the complaints watchdog, the profession’s leaders said last week as they attempted to ease cost burdens of vexatious cases on smaller practices.
The Law Society called on the Legal Ombudsman to revert to its previous regime of allowing two complaints against an individual to be handled each year before charges are imposed on the lawyer or firm.
Three years ago, the ombudsman’s office withdrew that facility, insisting on a broad brush “polluter pays” principle to be applied to all solicitors falling into its system.
In a policy statement released last week the society claimed the threat of taking complaints to the ombudsman, and the potential for fees to be levied, “is being used by some complainants as a way of negotiating cheaper fees”.
The society also claimed that dealing with ombudsman “can be time consuming and expensive”. Its research shows that a £400 case fee can be charged even when a complaint has not been upheld. According to the society, that “creates perverse incentives” that push firms to settle even though they feel they have a strong defence.
Jonathan Smithers, the society’s president, said his organisation supported in principle the concept of “polluter pays”, but that case fees “must be applied more flexibly to remove the perverse incentive to settle vexatious complaints early and to support small firms and those who provide free advice”.
In our view the ombudsman is best avoided by offering to mediate under the ADR Directive.