Regulators plan to consult on what information solicitors should provide to clients about their options and procedures for making service complaints.
Complaints by clients often involve poor legal management. This can include delays in dealing with correspondence, missing deadlines or not having proper procedures in place to diarise steps in litigation. This can be caused by poor supervision.
Poor legal management can lead to claims or complaints which would in the past have been dealt with through the Legal Ombudsman but now mediation is a valid alternative thanks to the ADR Directive. However, both parties have to agree to use mediation and the client still has to be given the Legal Ombudsman details.
According to section 112 of the 2007 Legal Services Act (LSA), all lawyers must notify their clients in writing of their right to make a complaint and how this can be done. Clients must also be informed at the conclusion of the complaint process of their right to take the complaint on to the Legal Ombudsman. Clients also need to be advised of a certified ADR Provider to deal with the complaint if it can’t be resolved.
Minutes of last month’s Legal Services Board meeting have revealed ‘concern’ about the relatively small number of providers who appeared to have met this obligation. The question was also raised whether regulators ought to be obliged to ensure lawyers publish data on their handling of complaints. A review of the effectiveness of complaints-handling found the LSB’s guidance could be updated to help consumers.
The review found all the approved regulators have first-tier complaints-handling and signposting arrangements in place. But consumer research has found lawyers are ‘some way’ from meeting outcomes set out by the LSB. The board papers cited research from 2011 that showed 62% of clients who were dissatisfied with their lawyer had to ask for information on complaints procedures, with only 8% being told about the Legal Ombudsman at the time. Successive Legal Ombudsman satisfaction surveys have shown low proportions of consumers hearing about the service through their lawyer, although the proportion did rise from 17% in 2011/12 to 23% in 2013/14.
According to the LSA, consumers must have confidence that complaints-handling procedures provide effective safeguards for them, and that their complaints will be dealt with ‘comprehensively and swiftly, with appropriate redress where necessary’. An internal LSB review carried out last year found a lack of clarity among all parties about the roles and responsibilities for complaints-handling, with confusion among both lawyers and clients. The review suggests a ‘comprehensive’ change to the guidance for practitioners to set out how regulators can encourage a clear overview of the first-tier complaints-handling process. This guidance will also set out how regulators can ‘ensure practitioners are best placed to achieve outcomes clients need’. The consultation on new guidance comes at a time when complaints numbers have fallen significantly. In 2012/13, the ombudsman service dealt with 7,360 cases, which rose to 8,055 the following year. In 2016/17 the anticipated caseload is set to be around 6,500.
With luck it will be possible to reduce complaints even further by giving clients the option of mediating whether there has been poor legal management or other problems.