Legal Ombudsman - June 2011

Adam Sampson Chief Legal Ombudsman gives us his thoughts on Silks, barristers’ financial management issues and some of his current cases…

Touring one or two of the Silks’ parties over the past few days left me with mixed emotions. On the one hand, it is nice to see talent recognised. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Silk system, it does at least provide a mechanism by which years of dedication and hard work is honoured.


On the other hand, when one of the new Silks introduces me as someone whom she has worked alongside for more than 20 years – well, those of you of a similar age will understand how disconcerting that is.

The Silks’ rituals are timeless – deliberately so. The full-bottomed wigs. The breeches and lace. The gowns and buckled shoes. All are designed to talk of continuity, of permanence. But we all know that things are changing, and changing rapidly.

A few weeks ago, I had one of those double-headers: a speech to the Public Access Bar Association, followed by a reception at the Index on Censorship awards. Very different events, with different topics. But at both events I was picked off by people anxious to get what they thought would be an inside track on the challenges facing the Bar.

Front and centre of those challenges, it appeared, was money. For the chambers Chief Executive I spent an hour talking to, it was how to find a business model which would allow a traditionally legal aid chambers to adapt to a world where legal aid was much scarcer. For the direct access barristers, it was far simpler: how were they to reconcile the traditional barristerial reluctance to engage in direct financial relationships with clients, with their desire to offer an alternative to the usual instructing solicitor model?

In both cases, the lesson is the same. The days when the Bar can leave the rather grubby business of finance to others are numbered. As businesses and as professionals, barristers now have to engage more with financial management issues.

To date, we have taken on around 100 complaints against barristers for investigation. In the main, they are falling into the “failure to follow instructions” and “failure to advise” categories. But these are not exclusive, so I hope you find the following case studies useful - one about poor communication, another on rudeness, and finally an example of where delay cost a lawyer dear. There are plenty more on our website: www.legalombudsman.org.uk

Case study one: minor mistakes and poor communication

Mr K attended court to vary a contact order for his son. Mr K says he was advised by his barrister to withdraw his application for a residence order. He does not believe that the consequences of doing this, particularly the fact that he would not be able to apply again, were explained to him.

Mr K also says that during the court session it was agreed that the mother of his child would fund his once-a-year journey abroad to visit his son. However, this was not included in the order. The barrister and the solicitor both originally stated that they could not recall this being agreed but, on receiving further information, they both agreed that it should have been included. The barrister attempted to resolve this informally by requesting an amendment to the agreement under the slip rule, but this was declined by the mother’s solicitor.

Mr K had to attend another court hearing to obtain an amendment to the original order. This caused him considerable stress, and also meant there was a delay in him seeing his son. We resolved this case by arranging for the barristers to apologise to Mr K and pay an amount of compensation (between £150-250) for distress and inconvenience.

Case study two: rudeness

Mr B instructed a barrister to act for him in relation to a Financial Dispute Resolution hearing. The hearing was about the ongoing maintenance payments that had been ordered some 25 years ago, linked to his divorce. He was unhappy with the service of the barrister, claiming amongst other things that she:

  • kept him waiting in the court foyer for a very long time before the hearing
  • did not greet him, dismissed his input, and never discussed the hearing
  • kept mentioning how expensive her fees were and how ‘poor’ he was
  • was late to court for a one hour pre-court discussion she had insisted he attend .


The barrister accepts she kept the client and his solicitor waiting for 20 minutes, and has already apologised for this. Our investigation continues.

Case study three: time is mone

Mrs C’s mother died unexpectedly, after a serious illness. She had made a will, which was with the family’s trusted solicitor.

Mrs C was the executor as well as a trustee and beneficiary of her mother’s will. The other beneficiary was Mrs C’s elderly stepfather. There wasn’t any dispute about the estate. Mrs C had been clear about her instructions, and everyone knew what to expect. But they were grieving and wanted to make sure they had everything sorted out.

The estate was to be split into two trusts, one for the realised capital from investments and the other for property. The income from these trusts would be paid to Mrs C’s stepfather during his lifetime, and any assets upon his death would go to Mrs C.

Mrs C found that she was regularly ringing her solicitor for progress updates, and felt that things only happened with her case if she called and called. Mrs C told us that she had found it all very stressful and upsetting. She wanted things to be sorted for her stepfather, she was sad about her mother and, at a practical level, she ran her own business and had lost a lot of work time chasing her solicitors.

Mrs C complained to her solicitor first, asking them to explain why it had taken them over a year and a half to even be close to setting up the two trusts and why, in that time, they had only released one interim payment to her stepfather. Mrs C felt that her solicitor only progressed as far as they did after she wrote several letters and arranged a ‘crisis meeting’.

When her complaint wasn’t resolved in-house by her solicitors, Mrs C came to us. We looked into her complaint and, as a result, the solicitor agreed to waive their fees of £1,000 plus VAT (the equivalent of three months’ work on the case), as this was the length of the overall delay we decided had happened. Mrs C and the solicitor agreed to this and, even better for Mrs C, her solicitor also agreed to finalise the probate within a specified amount of time.

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Adam Sampson

Adam is the Chief Legal Ombudsman.