Only a third of members of the public who complain to the Bar Standards Board (BSB) about barristers’ professional conduct believe the process is open and fair, according to a user satisfaction survey.
The BSB survey of complaints closed between July and December 2011 involved 99 questionnaires sent to complainants and 215 to barristers. About one in three responded.
Asked whether they thought the process was open and fair, only 33% would say they either “agreed” or “strongly agreed”. Even when asked to leave aside the final outcome of the complaint, just 34% of complainants said they were satisfied with the way the BSB handled their complaint.
Presenting the survey’s results to the BSB’s recent monthly board meeting, Simon Lofthouse QC, chair of the professional conduct committee, drew attention to “a significant reduction in complaints by complainants that the system is not open and fair”. In 2010 62% of complainants “strongly disagreed” that the system was open and fair, compared to just 39% in 2011, he said.
However, lay member Richard Thompson queried this interpretation, saying: “I think we must be careful in claiming that this is still a good outcome because we ought to work in such a way that we try and identify why it is that still a majority of people do not believe it is open and fair.”
Mr Lofthouse replied that his point was simply that “the direction of travel” was positive.
Contrasting sharply with the views of complainants, nearly three-quarters of barristers who were the subject of complaints were generally satisfied with the transparency and fairness of the process.
The paper presented by Mr Lofthouse acknowledged this disparity was due to the fact that “a high percentage” of complaints against barristers are dismissed for lack of evidence of professional misconduct. “Realistically, the high dismissal rate of third-party complaints makes it impossible to achieve parity in this area – especially when complainants continue to perceive that the BSB is not independent. However, there is still a need to reduce the gap further,” it said.
Lay member Rob Behrens, a former complaints commissioner to the BSB, told the meeting: “This is not out of kilter with other ombudsman schemes, which reject the majority of complaints”.
He continued: “It is impossible to separate out people’s perceptions of fairness from the end result. If they get a negative decision they are not going to generally agree that the process has been fair or transparent or that the ombudsman has properly considered the complaint.”