A row is brewing between the Law Society and Legal Services Board (LSB) over the wind-down of the Legal Complaints Service (LCS), Legal Futures can reveal.
LSB chief executive Chris Kenny has written to his counterpart at the LCS, Deborah Evans, to insist that the LCS’s current performance targets stay in place as it heads towards closure, despite dwindling staff, which the Society and LCS believe may justify lowering the targets.
Law Society chief executive Des Hudson told Legal Futures today that the LSB’s position was “unthoughtful and an error of judgement”. He said that when the Society set the targets at the start of the year, it was explicitly on the basis that they would be reviewed in the spring and “may well have to be flexed”.
Mr Kenny told Legal Futures: “The letter summarises the content of a thoughtful and constructive discussion with the Legal Complaints Service. It underlines the importance that the Legal Services Board attaches to consumers continuing to get a good service during a period of organisational change at the Legal Complaints Service.”
The LCS is currently performing well above its targets. The LCS board meeting yesterday heard that 73% of cases in the year to date were closed within three months, against a target of 60%; 92% were closed within six months (target 80%); and 99.8% were closed within a year (target 99%). Mr Hudson said the LCS is doing “remarkably well” in the circumstances.
The LCS is aiming to have no more than 2,700 cases outstanding in October (when the ombudsman hopes to open, but it will only deal with new cases). At the end of March the caseload was 244 cases lower than the milestone set for that point, which it said was due to in-house closures being 15% higher than forecast despite receiving 5% more complaints than expected. The LCS is scheduled to close for good in March 2011.
The letter from Mr Kenny said: “Current performance, particularly against the targets relating to the speed of resolution, suggests that these targets, although challenging, are realistic, not least given the strong plans for building up the use of outsourcing contracts [to external law firms]. This should give you a means of managing workload as staff numbers decline, both by natural wastage and by recruitment to the Legal Ombudsman.”
The LCS board was told that staff numbers are down to 302 (excluding 15 staff on maternity leave) against a full complement of 382. Absence data showed that 848 caseworker days were lost in March, with sickness higher than forecast, and “much higher” than in 2009, at an average of 1.4 days lost per caseworker in the month. Currently the LCS only outsources a relatively small proportion of cases to a panel of law firms.
Mr Kenny made it clear that the LSB will take action if the LCS’s performance declines. He said: “We will consider our actions in light of the following:
“1. Whether the decline is clearly a one-off occurrence and will improve the following month, in which case we are likely only to be concerned if there is no improvement.
“2. Whether it is recurring, but not material, as customer detriment is limited in either extent and/or duration – in which case we would ask for a full explanation as to why and may (or may not) take further action.
“3. Whether it is a material issue and relates to one or more of the targets we are particularly concerned about. In this case, we are likely to conclude that a full action plan from the LCS is necessary, setting out why the problem occurred and what action is being taken to address it. If we still do not see any improvement we will consider whether further steps to rectify performance, as allowed by the Act, should be taken.”