Posted by Neil Rose, Editor, Legal Futures
The last time I visited the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) in the landmark Birmingham building Baskerville House, which was in the spring, there were a handful of people working in makeshift surrounds while two empty floors at the top of the building awaited kitting out to welcome what will eventually be 300-350 staff.
I was back up there last week and with a month to go until LeO opens for business (there’s even a nice little countdown on its website), things are certainly shaping up. So, how are the profession’s millions being spent?
Well, the offices have a good feel to them – white furniture all round with splashes of corporate colours here and there. There are ‘break-out’ areas, a canteen and so on, all the kinds of things one would expect to see in a modern open-plan office for that number of people. And anyone who remembers that episode of Dragon’s Den where Theo Paphitis and Deborah Meaden invested in the ‘Magic Whiteboard’ – white, flipchart-style sheets that stick to the wall – may be interested that the product seems to be taking off, as evidenced by its widespread use on LeO’s walls.
Every desk has two monitors – which appears to be increasingly the norm in offices – because the aim is to be as paperless as possible. Telephone conversations, for example, will not be transcribed, but voice files kept in case they are needed. Nobody is hiding away in offices, with the eight ombudsman dotted around the two floors to be fully accessible to staff.
With many people still to be recruited, and of those that have been, a lot away being trained, it was a calm experience being in LeO’s offices last week, especially with their panoramic views over Birmingham from each side. But once the expected 100,000 calls a year start flooding in from 6 October, and the displays on how many calls are waiting etc start ticking over, it will no doubt hum with the vibe of unhappy clients (although LeO estimates that only around 15-20,000 will actually turn into cases for investigation).
But beyond the decor, LeO feels what it is – a clean break from the past and a new way of doing things (which is partly why so few Legal Complaints Service staff have got jobs there, despite the intention that most would, see story). This is what lawyers have to realise – the quasi-litigation process that they have come to expect with their existing complaints bodies will be no more.
LeO will be informal and inquisitive. There will not be lengthy to-ing and fro-ing between the parties. Complaints will not stretch on for months (not that many do now, in fairness to the Legal Complaints Service). Miss a deadline and, unless you have a very good excuse for doing so, the ombudsman will just go on and make his decision without your input. Your only remedy then will be judicial review.
Most new organisations feel the need to show they mean business very publicly, and I don’t suppose LeO will be any different. I will not be surprised in the early days to hear quite a few hard-luck tales from lawyers who did not realise that there is a new sheriff in town and that he does things very differently to his predecessors. With LeO’s ability to issue awards of up to £30,000, this could be a costly mistake.
You have been warned.