The Bar Council has launched an outspoken attack on a planned 20% rise in the budget of the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), which would increase it from £12.3 to £14.8m.
The Law Society also opposed the move, saying LeO had not provided “credible evidence” for the increase, which it could not support.
In the consultation on its corporate strategy for 2020-23 and business plan for 2020-21, LeO said it needed the extra money to “radically” improve the time it takes to deal with complaints and “eliminate all unnecessary waiting time”.
The Bar Council said it “strongly” objected to the timing of the proposed increase, because it had, “after lengthy consideration, consultation and approval from the Legal Services Board”, already set its budget for 2020/21.
“A proposal for a 20% increase for the next financial year received after the representative body budgets have been finalised and the practising certificate (PC) fee application has been approved by the LSB is totally unacceptable.”
The Bar Council said the levy on the profession that funds the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), LeO’s governing body, had already been “factored into” its new PC fee levels.
“Any increase in OLC costs would cause major disruption as it cannot be easily accommodated within an already set budget. Consulting in February for an increased budget to begin in April demonstrates a lack of forward planning.”
The Bar Council said there was a risk that a big increase in the OLC levy would be passed onto consumers by barristers charging higher fees, and there should be no “significant” rise before “all other measures” had been explored, including better use of existing staff.
Responding to the consultation, the Bar Council added: “As case closures have increased and backlogs have already reduced significantly, we believe it may well be the case that the 20% increase in budget is not required.”
The Law Society took a similarly hard line, pointing out that there had been a £900,000 underspend in LeO’s budget for the past two financial years.
The society said that of the £2.5m increase, £1.2m was for additional staff needed to increase case closures, £400,000 for investment in ‘feedback to the profession’ and the rest for IT costs and inflation.
“Bearing in mind that LeO underwent a successful IT modernisation program very recently we are not clear why further significant investment is required.
“The proposed increase in the budget of 20% is substantial, and the OLC has provided no indication of how many additional staff are required or how they will be deployed.
“It would also help to know whether the proposed recruitment is intended to be permanent or temporary staff. Self-evidently, if the former, we would question whether this does not risk future redundancies when the caseload is back under control.”
The society said any increase was likely to impact on PC fees and there was “little appetite in the profession for any such measures”.
The society said the “stripping back” of legal aid meant that firms were struggling to keep afloat financially, while others were forced to close.
“At the same time, more than a third of trainees working in regional firms are not receiving the recommended minimum salary, which is symptomatic of the economic and political uncertainty currently impacting the legal sector.
“If yet more costs are enforced on the profession, solicitors will be left with little choice but to pass them on to clients, which could further undermine access to justice, an outcome clearly at odds with the broader public interest.”