The Law Society has attacked plans by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) to increase pay for its staff by 8%, as part of a 9.6% increase in its budget for the next financial year.
The society compared the 8% rise to the fate of criminal legal aid solicitors, who “have not had a pay rise for over 25 years” and whose fees had in fact been cut in real terms.
President Lubna Shuja described LeO’s proposed pay rise as “particularly concerning” and noted that, like criminal legal aid solicitors, those doing civil legal aid had “not seen a pay increase for many years”.
Ms Shuja went on: “Any increase in LeO’s budget, which is substantially funded by a levy on the solicitors’ profession via practising certificate fees, could be a particularly heavy burden on some members of the profession as they continue to face unprecedented financial pressures.
“Consumers may also be affected as law firms may have to raise their fees to pay their regulatory costs, meaning access to justice may be impacted.”
Launching a consultation last month on LeO’s draft business plan and budget for 2023/24, the Office for Legal Complaints, its governing body, said an “inflationary” 9.6% increase in the budget for 2023/24 to £16.8m – equivalent to an extra £7.20 per solicitor – would enable LeO to get through much of its complaints backlog.
LeO’s budget rose by 5.3% for the current year to £15.3m, after a 13% increase the year before.
Responding to the draft business and budget, the society said it remained “cautious” about the fall in cases in LeO’s pre-assessment pool (PAP) – cases accepted but not yet allocated to an investigator.
LeO has estimated that it could reduce this front-end queue by half by March next year and by the end of the following March it would be “drastically reduced”.
The society said LeO’s plan to reduce the PAP to less than 700 cases by March 2024 “may be overly ambitious” and it was “uncertain what contingency plans LeO has factored into the forecast”.
However, in its response, the Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC) said it “reluctantly” accepted LeO’s budget rise as it “seemed necessary to ensure that the backlog is reduced quickly and that new approaches are embedded and to maintain efficiency and effective complaints handling in the longer term”.
The CLC said it expected that the budget plan for 2024/25, the first “post-PAP” budget would be “very significantly reduced”, possibly by as much as £6m compared to the year before, with LeO needing to handle only around 5,000 to 6,000 complaints once recent changes to the scheme rules also take effect.
“Where we have yet to be assured is on the control of costs. We accept that the ‘cost per complaint’ can be a difficult measure given the different routes to resolution that exist, but it is an important focus given that LeO continues to be a very high-cost operation.”
The CLC said the cost of each investigated complaint was £3,401, falling to £1,456 when early settlement cases were included.
The Bar Council, in its response, described the planned 9.6% inflation increase as “not ideal”, but recognised the “wider economic factors at play and the importance of staff retention to delivering their plans”.
It said LeO should “consider how it can increase its resilience to shocks and stresses like those created by the Covid-19 pandemic”, to avoid the “accumulation of unresolved cases and unacceptable wait times” again.
“Given that there have been some significant budget increases over the last few years to allow LeO to restructure its operations and reduce its complaints backlog, we would like to see consideration of how it can reduce its budget back down to pre-2020-21 levels in due course.”
In its response, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEX) said there was “cause for increasing confidence in LeO” and that it broadly backed the budget.
“CILEX welcomes the good progress made since last year as real causes for greater confidence in LeO for the future but urges continued vigilance to nurture these green shoots of improvement in order to be sure of harvesting the full benefits of change in the coming year,” it said.
More broadly, CILEX suggested that a lack of proper training on professional ethics and responsibility “could be a real factor in the volume and nature of complaints against lawyers which LeO ultimately receives”.
It encouraged LeO to look at ethical standards “and specifically how that relates to complaints handling, as distinct from general client-handling skills”.