Law Society would support Legal Ombudsman outsourcing

Complaints: Outsourcing worked for Legal Complaints Service

The Law Society has said it would be “inclined to support” any bid by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) to secure legislation which would allow it to outsource complaints handling.

The society described LeO as “struggling to achieve its primary purpose” of delivering an “effective, speedy complaint resolution scheme”.

It was responding to the draft business plan and budget for 2024/25, and 2024-27 strategy from the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), LeO’s governing body, which said rising demand meant it would take longer to reduce cases waiting to be investigated, while seeking a 7% budget increase to almost £18m.

The society said the OLC “might wish to focus on directing resources to external providers which might assist in the reduction of waiting times, reduce costs and have more flexibility to cope with peaks in demand”.

The Legal Complaints Service, which the Law Society operated before the arrival of LeO in 2010, had achieved “increased case closures and substantial costs savings” by outsourcing its functions on a fixed costs per case basis.

“We understand that the OLC considers that enabling legislation would be required before it could outsource the investigation and decision-making functions of LeO.”

If that was the case, so long as “the delegate entities have the appropriate knowledge, skills, expertise and resources to manage a quick and informal, yet competent complaints resolution scheme, we would be inclined to support such an application, subject to the provision of more detailed information”.

The Law Society welcomed the progress made in reducing the backlog of cases waiting for investigation, “especially through the introduction of the early resolution process”.

However, it was concerned by LeO’s ability to effectively reduce waiting times, the reliability of the OLC’s forecasts, and LeO’s staff attrition rates.

The target waiting time of 115 days before cases were allocated to an investigator was “still too long”, leaving the total customer journey time at an “unacceptable level” of between 205 to 255 days.

The society said LeO was “struggling to achieve its primary purpose, namely, to deliver an effective, speedy complaint resolution scheme” and should only consider secondary objectives, such as improving the way law firms handled first-tier complaints or improving the quality of delivery of legal services, once that primary objective had been achieved.

The society noted that, in 2022/23, LeO responded to over 111,000 early contacts and enquiries from consumers, which were forecasted to increase in to over 141,000 for 2024-25.

Having “previously reported that many relate to consumer issues about goods and services” unconnected with legal services, and with only around 7,800 accepted for investigation, the OLC must find a “cost-effective way” of redirecting people.

President Nick Emmerson said the average productivity of LeO’s investigators in 2022-23 seemed “inexplicably low” at 4.3 cases per month.

“We believe that recruitment and retainment must focus on investigators and ensuring that their training equips them to provide a competent service where quality is assured and waiting times are substantially reduced.”

On LeO’s budget increase, Mr Emmerson commented: “A portion of these funds are proposed for increasing salaries, but also to part fund a new team to support the other part of the OLC’s proposed strategy for greater focus on learning and insight work.

“Whilst this delivers some positives it must not be at the expense of delivering on its statutory function of administering a quick and informal complaints resolution scheme.”

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