Green: level playing field

Green: level playing field

The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) is set to consult on allowing third parties to complain about lawyers in certain circumstances, it has emerged.

The Birmingham-based body will also consult on establishing a voluntary scheme that enables unregulated providers to give their customers access to redress and dispute resolution services, LeO’s newly published business plan for 2015-16 has revealed.

Both are new commitments included in the plan following a consultation on a draft version earlier this year.

Last year LeO set up a working group on third-party complaints amid reports of lawyers harassing third parties over alleged debts, violating their privacy and doling out abusive treatment in court. In 2013-14, LeO turned away 1,680 third-party complaints.

Though the group’s report has not been published, we discovered that it found scope for LeO to offer redress to third parties, as long as the complaints involved could be “clearly and tightly defined”.

A voluntary scheme has been talked about for some time, and LeO said the feedback from its consultation overall welcomed such a move as it would help to enhance consumer protection and access to redress. This seems to have led LeO to upgrade what was going to be an ‘exploration’ of the issue into a full consultation.

But it recorded concerns that a voluntary scheme must not be designed in such a way as to create “any false sense of security for those who use unregulated service providers”, while the cost of developing and running it should not fall to regulated service providers.

The Law Society has expressed its opposition to LeO taking on third-party complaints.

LeO’s overall priorities for the next year as improving efficiency – which will include a consultation on a review of its scheme rules – implementing agreed changes to its jurisdiction, helping to create an improved legal complaints-handling system, and disseminating what it has learned more widely.

Other notable commitments in the business plan include developing “options for effective earlier intervention – such as mediation, arbitration and first-tier complaint support – and reviewing the policy on publishing decisions “to ensure that this is helping to drive positive behaviours across the sector and is effective in informing consumers”.

In his foreword to the report, Steve Green, chair of LeO’s oversight board, the Office for Legal Complaints, said: “Many consumers, when making a decision on purchasing a service, will not think about where the boundaries lie between regulated and unregulated entities. But they will expect to be able to seek redress for poor service.

“We believe that all consumers of legal services – whether regulated or unregulated – should be able to access the ombudsman scheme and that service providers should be able to operate on a level playing field.

“However, at present we do not have the powers to achieve this vision, which would require not only changes in the law and regulation, but would also require us to offer a more flexible ombudsman model.”

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