From April 2012 the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) will “name and shame” law firms or lawyers against whom a “pattern of complaints” has been made, or whenever naming is judged to be in the public interest, it announced today.
In addition, basic information about all complaints resulting in a LeO decision – whether upheld or dismissed – will be published, including the names of lawyers or law firms and the outcome of the case.
Approval of the plan by the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) – which oversees LeO – brings to an end a protracted debate over the merits of naming lawyers who are the subject of complaints which was begun by the old Legal Complaints Service in 2007.
It overrules the three main professional bodies, which argued that reporting of complaints should remain “anonymised”, but stops short of a full-scale policy of transparency.
Only cases resolved by a formal LeO decision will be eligible for naming. The criteria for naming will be “a pattern of complaints or set of individual circumstances that indicate it is in the public interest that the firm or individual should be named”.
Under the Legal Services Act, the identity of complainants is fully protected.
A LeO spokesman told Legal Futures that analysis of the past six months’ complaints data suggests that of the 7,000 or so investigations carried out so far, about 7% (490) would have met the “public interest” test. Some will have involved the same firm or lawyer more than once.
The test for public interest disclosure includes: evidence of systematic failures that could adversely affect other consumers; “exceptional or severe impact” on an individual or group of complainants; evidence of “very serious service failure”; or lack of cooperation with LeO to the detriment of the consumer.
Starting in April 2012, the names of firms and individuals against whom complaints are judged to meet the “pattern” or “public interest” test will be published immediately.
Also from April, information on all complaints resolved by a formal decision will be collated, with the aim of publicising both good and bad practices. It will be published in table form quarterly from July 2012 and annually from May 2013. The data, which includes firm or lawyer names, the number of decisions and the outcome, will be fully searchable and remain available for a 12-month period, updated quarterly.
OLC chairwoman Elizabeth France said “We consider we have struck a balance between protecting consumers and encouraging an independent and strong legal profession. Every day we know most lawyers do a good job for their clients – but there are some who simply don’t. That’s why it’s in the profession’s interest to make sure all who provide services to consumers are doing so effectively.”
Last month about whether data could be published in a way that would not be misinterpreted.
The chairwoman of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, Elisabeth Davies, described the decision as “great news for consumers” that means “there will no longer be a hiding place for the minority in the profession who provide a poor service and fail to put things right”.
In its detailed response to a year-long consultation on naming, the OLC argued the decision to publish information only in cases resolved with a formal LeO decision was proportionate and fair. If details were to be disclosed on all cases requiring a remedy, nearly 2,000 names would have had to be included just in the six months when data was analysed.
In summarising views submitted during the consultation, the OLC did not directly address concerns raised by the Law Society and the Institute of Legal Executives that naming and shaming would disproportionately impact on ethnic minority and sole practitioners, who often work in “emotional” areas of law, such as family and immigration and asylum work. Family law was the most complained about area of law in LeO’s first year, ahead of conveyancing.
The OLC rejected the idea of introducing a threshold for the number of upheld complaints before naming took place on the grounds that it was hard to find a criterion that achieved both fairness and consistency.
Defending its decision to publish a statistical summary of complaints information – including the names of lawyers and firms – the OLC claimed the approach “allows a more proportionate treatment of the information that focuses primarily on improving standards across the profession in the longer term and should not be seen as punishing or ‘naming and shaming’ individual lawyers or firms”.
It continued: “The OLC has reached a conclusion which it is satisfied avoids penalising the profession for occasional lapses while at the same time ensuring that the information published will be targeted and proportionate.
“The decision avoids a scenario where a small number of providers would be identified, feeding a mistaken view that publication was intended to be punitive. It also ensures that the data is easily accessible.”
The consumer minister, Ed Davey MP, said: “I am pleased that [LeO] has decided to publish this data. This will make the legal profession stronger, improve service standards and consumers will be better protected as a result… This will enable consumers to be armed with the best possible information before purchasing goods or services.”