The Law Society has told the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) to ask the government for “Covid-related financial assistance” instead of expecting the profession to fund a proposed 19% budget hike.
Stating in the bluntest terms its opposition to LeO’s budget plans, the society said it had cut its own budget this year to support “members’ businesses in this difficult economic climate”.
The society said the request from LeO’s governing body, the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), for a “substantial increase” in its budget was similar to the 20% increase proposed last year and rejected by the Legal Services Board after opposition from the Law Society and Bar Council.
In its business plan and budget consultation for 2021-22, the OLC said the scheme was currently in an “unsustainable position”.
It said that, without an injection of extra cash, delays in handling complaints will continue to lengthen with LeO’s already faltering performance exacerbated by Covid-19.
Responding to the consultation, the society said while LeO, like all organisations, has been impacted by the pandemic, it was “difficult to understand” why the backlog of cases in the pre-assessment pool – cases that have not yet been allocated for investigation – had increased from 2,481 in March 2020 to an expected 5,000 in March this year.
“This will equate to over a 100% increase within a year, with wait times almost doubling.”
The society said there were questions as to how much of LeO’s current difficulties were “a direct consequence of the effects of the pandemic” and how much were “as a result of its management and operational issues”.
It cited LeO figures that showed on average 25% of LeO’s investigators claimed some form of special leave every week last June.
“We understand from LeO that it was following MoJ [Ministry of Justice] guidance in authorising special leave.
“However, for all organisations, it is the leadership’s responsibility to develop a plan which effectively supports the wellbeing of the staff team whilst continuing to meet the needs of service-users.
“It is unclear from the information available that this was effectively achieved. Considering the financial support that the government has given to other sectors in the form of furlough payments, LeO should consider if there is scope to obtain Covid-related financial assistance towards part of its budget application to recoup additional costs incurred as a consequence of following the guidance.”
The society suggested that the OLC should also consider using some of its reserves, as the Financial Ombudsman Service had done, to absorb additional costs – this is an issue that the OLC is currently discussing with the Ministry of Justice.
The response went on: “The OLC is suggesting that a substantial investment in resources will deliver the much greater number of closures to which LeO aspires.
“However, in our opinion, it has not provided sufficient evidence to support the significant increase and we are not able to support the proposed budget increase.”
David Greene, president of the society, described the budget request as “out of step” with the economy as it is, especially given LeO’s performance over the last year.
“The organisation needs to focus on the reasons behind its performance levels so that these may be addressed as well as tackling its human resource issues before considering the recruitment of more staff.”