The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) is taking five months just to pass any new complaints to an investigator as it struggles to cope with the impact of Covid-19.
The number of complaints cases closed has also plummeted, in part due to law firms’ own problems.
In a recent interview with Legal Futures, Elisabeth Davies, chair of LeO’s governing body, the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), warned that the coronavirus crisis would hamper efforts to improve LeO’s performance.
In a letter to the Legal Services Board ahead of its meeting earlier this month, Ms Davies spelt this out in detail.
She said the “net effect” of the problems faced by LeO was that the pre-assessment pool of complaints – complaints taken in but not allocated to an investigator – was 3,359, having been under 2,000 in December 2019.
Meanwhile, law firms “closing and/or furloughing staff” triggered a rise in those “unable to deal with complaints”, leading to a doubling of case suspensions.
Ms Davies said the board of the OLC recognised that it needed to be “honest and realistic” about the “significant impact” of Covid-19 on LeO’s performance.
She said LeO “has not seen any decrease in new complaints” since the beginning of lockdown, unlike other ombudsman schemes.
“Whilst LeO can provide the infrastructure for staff to work from home, their ability to work has been significantly affected, predominantly due to caring responsibilities.
“This is also affecting LeO’s ability to close cases which in May was 300 and in April was 367.”
Ms Davies said this compared to pre-Covid closure rates of 482 in March this year, 454 in February, and 474 in January. Closure rates were as high as 617 last October.
Since the beginning of April, 1,400 cases had been added to the backlog and the age profile of cases had also increased, resulting in a “mean wait” of 150 days – compared to 100 days pre-lockdown.
A report to the OLC board and shared with the LSB, gave further details of the predicament facing LeO.
The report, by Steve Pearson, deputy chief ombudsman and Mariette Hughes, head ombudsman, said “levels of output have reduced across all investigator cohorts”, with a third of investigators relatively inexperienced as well, with under six months’ service with LeO.
Reduced availability due to Covid-related caring responsibilities was reported by 20-25 investigators every week, with “fragmented working patterns of both LeO staff and customers” having an impact on case progression. Over 75% of team leaders reported reduced capacity.
The report advised that any “phased return” to LeO’s office in Birmingham should be “based on the needs of the organisation and the personal position of each individual employee”.
It predicted that, bearing in mind the current social distancing guidelines, maximum capacity in the office was likely to be limited to 25%. Nobody would be required to work in the office if they did not want to.