Law firms’ complaints records to be published in improvement push

Kershaw: Addressing complaints is good for business

Law firms’ performance in handling clients’ complaints should be published to improve transparency, the Legal Services Board (LSB) has told the frontline regulators.

The move is part of a push to deliver “a step-change improvement” in the resolution of first-tier complaints, ie those that clients make to law firms.

The LSB wants “to foster a culture where legal service users feel empowered to complain, are confident that their complaints will be taken seriously, and where complaints are perceived in the sector as an opportunity to improve service and bring business benefits”.

The oversight regulator has published statutory requirements and guidance, along with a statement of policy on first-tier complaints that the regulators are required to implement within the next 18 months.

It has acted off the back of findings that 45% of complaints escalated to the Legal Ombudsman were found to have been handled inadequately at the first tier, and evidence of many ‘silent sufferers’ who do not complain despite dissatisfaction with the service they received.

The guidance says the requirements “specify that regulators must make provision in their regulatory arrangements for each authorised person’s complaints procedure to be accessible, informative, easy to use and fair, provide for learning and improvement and give legal service users confidence by putting them at the heart of the resolution of complaints.

“Regulators must also specify in their regulatory arrangements what happens when there is non-compliance with the complaints provisions by authorised persons.”

Publication follows a policy development process that began two years ago and has included research and consultation.

At the moment, only lawyers’ complaints records at the Legal Ombudsman are publicly available. The draft had required regulators to collect and publish data about their performance in resolving first-tier complaints within eight weeks.

There was significant pushback against this – the Law Society said it would be “misleading and unfair” – but the LSB said it was an “important aspect of our policy, as we anticipate it will act as an incentive to authorised persons, including firms, to resolve complaints in a timely way, and to be accountable where this does not happen”.

But it acknowledged that the data had to be “properly contextualised in order for it to be a meaningful and fair representation of firms’ performance”, and there may be good reasons why the resolution of a complaint took longer than eight weeks.

The final version now requires regulators to “understand the timeliness with which authorised persons resolve first-tier complaints to the complainant’s satisfaction. This data should be appropriately contextualised and published in order to increase transparency about performance levels”.

Another change from the draft was replacing a requirement for lawyers to keep records on first-tier complaints with a focus on implementing means “to appropriately identify systematic issues and/or common themes arising from the complaints they receive”.

The guidance has also been amended to note that the absence or low number of complaints in practice areas where there are frequent complaints, “might potentially indicate that there may be concerns about an authorised person’s complaints procedure”.

LSB chair Alan Kershaw said: “Too many people experience challenges in having their complaints dealt with fairly and promptly. Often this is because it is not clear how to complain or they feel they come up against a wall of silence. The process should be clear, easy and as stress-free as possible.

“Addressing complaints promptly is not just about resolving issues; it’s good for business too. By tackling grievances early on, we prevent them from escalating into resource-intensive problems down the line.

“This proactive approach not only fosters better customer relationships but also enhances a competitive edge in the market and reduces the need for a regulator to become involved.”

Alongside the requirements, the LSB has established a first-tier complaints coalition, comprising regulators, representative bodies and the Legal Ombudsman, as well as various other bodies, including the Association of Consumer Support Organisations, Citizens’ Advice Bureau, Conveyancing Association, Legal Practice Managers’ Association and Which?.

The LSB said the coalition was looking at “how best to support the culture change in the handling of first-tier complaints which we consider is necessary”.

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