Legal Complaints

Adam Sampson reviews the first few months of operation of the Legal Ombudsman, the new scheme which handles all consumer legal complaints. Although it is too early to predict any trends, the number of complaints made about individual barristers was very low, he says.

The run-up to the launch of the new Legal Ombudsman (“LeO”) on 6 October 2010 (only six months ago but it feels longer) was a time of high interest and high excitement. The arrival of a lay body to replace a system of complaints handling owned and operated by lawyers themselves attracted a surprising level of media attention, including interviews on the Today Programme, Breakfast News and The One Show. Behind the scenes, recruiting, training and deploying some 300 staff largely new to handling complaints in the legal arena was a major challenge, to say nothing of sourcing and fitting out a building and designing and implementing a state-of-the-art IT system. All adrenaline; all attention.


And once the launch events were done and the Minister and bigwigs of the legal and consumer worlds had departed, we were into the serious business of actually doing the day job, which is to resolve complaints not just about barristers, but solicitors, legal executives and other lawyers, too. There was a lot of it to do: in our first three months alone, we answered close to 20,000 phonecalls, e-mails and letters – a fair workload in anybody’s terms. Not all of those represented new complaints, of course: some were lawyers ringing for advice, some repeat visitors ringing with new information about their cases, and some – inevitably – people who had found themselves ringing the wrong service (a significant number of them were people trying to buy a black and white TV licence!).

We were left with a hardcore of some 8,000 new complaints to kick start our systems. Many of these were not yet eligible for us to investigate – one of the key features of the new scheme is that we are only able to look at issues which have already been raised with the lawyer concerned. Here we do more than simply tell the complainant to raise the issue at the first tier; we also contact the lawyer ourselves to alert them to the situation. The later involvement of the LeO (if needed) should not then come as a surprise to a lawyer seeking to respond to a complaint at the local level.

Exploring the boundaries

One of the first things we learned from the new scheme has been the vagueness of the edges of our jurisdiction. For example:

  • Does a will-writing scheme wholly owned by a qualified lawyer come under regulation?
  • What about an internet-based divorce company staffed by lay people which promises to “pass your petition in front of our panel of specialist expert lawyers”?
  • How do we respond to the complaint from a victim of sexual assault who wrote to us about the treatment she received from the barrister instructed by the CPS?
  • If the complaint has already been the subject of a court hearing which the complainant regards as only covering half of the issues, should I rule it in or out?

 

These are complex issues which the advent of Alternative Business Structures this Autumn will render even more complex.

Complaints aimed at barristers

The subject of those initial 8,000 complaints ranged in subject across the spectrum of legal service issues: cost, delay, quality, failure to follow instructions. These will come as little surprise to barristers dealing with individual clients. Of the 2,000 or so cases we did accept for investigation from those 8,000 complaints during our first three months, just 70 or so were about practising barristers: small beer indeed compared to the number we accepted about solicitors. The low number received, however, means that it is too early to be able to identify trends.

Clearly, given that most investigations will take three months to complete, no complaint involving a barrister has yet resulted in a formal Ombudsman’s decision. Indeed, only one Ombudsman’s decision has yet been issued (for further information read my blog at www.legalombudsman.org.uk/blog.html). But that doesn’t mean to say that we haven’t brought many of the complaints raised with us to a satisfactory conclusion. One of the key aims of the scheme is to resolve complaints informally wherever possible and this hope appears to be being realised.

A valuable insight

Early days, admittedly, and these are just straws in the wind. But they are worth watching anyway, heralding what we hope will be a source of valuable insight into your work for you to drawn from, if you choose. We do want to know what you are interesting in finding out from us, so e-mail us at publications@legalombudsman.org.uk.

Opening up the LeO casefiles

(1) No action required
Complaint: In a family case the barrister did not follow instructions on an application for residency.
LeO action: It was clear from the attendance notes and correspondence that the barrister had acted in accordance with what instructions there were – and that the professional judgement was sound. Explained position to complainant.
Result: Complainant agreed no further action was necessary.

2) Complaint should have been dealt with in chambers
Complaint: Complainant paid £15,000 to a solicitor who, having instructed counsel, promptly then went bankrupt. When complainant tried to recover the money from the Solicitors’ Compensation Fund, she was told that she would have to find out first how much of the money had been paid to the barrister. Information not forthcoming
LeO action: LeO complaint to barrister.
Result: Information received. NB: In these sort of cases the LeO will be looking critically at chambers’ first tier complaints handling arrangements.

(3) Substantial complaint
Complaint: Complainant had been convicted of burgling what he claimed to the LeO was his own home. Claimed his solicitor had not followed up his witnesses before the hearing and barrister failed to argue for an adjournment for this to be done.
LeO action: To their credit, both solicitor and barrister agreed that their service had fallen short and undertook to work pro bono on a possible appeal. LeO also involved the Criminal Cases Review Commission.
Result: Complainant now is assured that his potential defence will now be properly explored.

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Adam Sampson

Adam is the Chief Legal Ombudsman.