There is a “disappointing and inexplicable” widening of the gap between the views of barristers and complainants when dealing with the Bar Standards Board (BSB) complaints procedures.
A report put before last week’s Bar Standards Board meeting showed that the barristers’ regulator has gone backwards in the public’s perception.
Four out of five barristers who are the subject of a complaint to the BSB “come away with a positive perception” of the complaints-handling service, the user feedback report said.
Those who do not mainly feel the process takes too long and said regular updates would improve matters.
However, after “more positive” results in 2011, the research shows that only two out of five complainants are satisfied with the process.
The area of most concern is transparency and openness, with 54% of respondents strongly disagreeing that the complaints process is open and fair. That compares unfavourably with 39% in 2011.
The report called for more research into this “disappointing” drop in satisfaction levels.
It said: “The decreases in satisfaction rates are in some areas inexplicable given that there were no significant changes in approach or the nature of the service provided over the two years. Indeed, significant time has been spent on trying to improve our communications and the information available to the public. “
Many complainants who regarded the process as unfair were those who had their claim dismissed without investigation, often due to a lack of evidence of a code of conduct breach.
The report suggested more needs to be done to “manage expectations” from the outset and explain that the BSB must balance resources.
The report insisted that the issue is one of perception, rather than fundamental unfairness.
Whereas the feedback from barristers was that more should be done to root out unmeritorious complaints, many complainants felt that the BSB was biased and “seeking to protect its own”. There was a similar feeling (32%) towards the Legal Ombudsman.
The report said a further “cause for concern” around accessing information is the usability of the BSB’s revamped website. Two-thirds of complainants use the website and they reported finding it “more difficult” than last year to find information.
The report outlined action points to improve the complaints-handling procedures, mainly around clearer language and better communication.
The survey looked at all complaints closed between January and December 2012 and sent questionnaires to 277 complainants and 439 barristers, getting a similar response rate of 39% and 37% respectively.
In terms of staff performance, 79% of barristers rated their experience of the BSB’s employees as good or excellent. However, 36% of complainants rated the staff as poor or very poor.
The BSB is now planning to commission up to £20,000 worth of further qualitative research in 2014/15 following the results from this year’s online survey, to assist the professional conduct department to take an “evidence-based approach” on making improvements.