Exits slow as staff morale rises rapidly at Legal Ombudsman

Davies: The OLC was asking for a lot

There has been a striking improvement in staff morale at the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), where the proportion of staff desperate to find another job has fallen from a third to just 8% in a year.

The new figures come as the chair of the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), the board that oversees LeO’s operation, revealed that it has listened to concerns about its proposed 19% budget increase for the coming year.

Staff disaffection has been one of the major problems LeO has faced in recent years as its performance has suffered.

In 2019, 32% said they wanted to leave as soon as possible, and 21% within a year. However, newly published figures from the Civil Service people survey last October showed that those figures had fallen to 8% and 16% respectively.

A third said they now wanted to stay at LeO for at least three years, up from just 14% in 2019.

A majority (55%) said they were proud to tell others they worked at LeO, a 21-point increase.

Overall, LeO still lagged behind the average across the Civil Service and other arm’s length bodies by virtually every measure, but it has caught up a great deal in just 12 months.

Satisfaction with the work and with inclusion and fair treatment, as well as with leadership, all jumped particularly significantly – although still only 37% were happy with the leadership and how it managed changed.

Since the survey was conducted, a new chief ombudsman and first chief operating officer have joined the organisation.

The percentage of staff who felt they have been discriminated against fell from 18% to 11%, nearly in line with the wider Civil Service, while 6% of staff felt they had been bullied and/or harassed, down from 16% in 2019 and lower than the whole Civil Service (9%).

In November, LeO consulted on a 19% increase in its budget for 2021/22 to £15.3m, and a further 6% the year after to £16.2m, arguing the scheme was in an “unsustainable position”.

It said that, without an injection of extra cash, delays in handling complaints will continue to lengthen, and reach nearly 11 months in around two years’ time.

However, we have reported on several negative responses from the profession.

In a blog on the LeO website, OLC chair Elisabeth Davies said that, while the responses showed support for a multi-year approach and a recognition that the complaints scheme needed to stabilise before it could improve, “this can’t mask that the OLC was asking for a lot”.

She continued: “Some investment is needed but the message we’ve heard is: ‘Are you sure you can’t make better use of what you’ve got in the first year? Are you really making enough use of innovation… and a commitment to doing things differently? Are you focusing your improvement enough on the backlog?’”

As a result, the business plan and budget have been revised and will go next week to the Legal Services Board for approval. Ms Davies did not say how much the OLC was now asking for.

“The plan remains part of a multi-year approach, but it has been re-balanced. There is now a greater emphasis on supporting existing staff to increase performance and productivity, through simplifying ways of working and doing things differently. A clear pathway to reducing the backlog is urgently being identified.”

Ms Davies stressed that ensuring the Legal Ombudsman recovered and improved was “not just the OLC’s problem”.

She explained: “This is fundamental to how the legal profession engages their customers, the sector’s commitment through education and learning to improving their customer experience and the contribution that the ombudsman should be making to this.

“The current backlog is affecting confidence in the scheme, credibility within the sector, the trust of complainants, and the OLC’s ability to have conversations about the Legal Ombudsman’s accountability and fit within the wider regulatory framework.

“This is a delicate balance. The sector wants to see more improvement, more quickly. So does the OLC. But as the lifetime of the consultation period has shown, uncertainty now needs to be planned for and changes must be sustainable.”

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