Lawyers face beefed-up rules on handling complaints

New requirements: LSB to pull statutory lever

Changes to statutory requirements on how lawyers handle complaints will move closer this week amid concern that consumers are being let down at the moment.

The Legal Services Board (LSB) is working on a series of measures, including ramping up what frontline regulators must insist of those they regulate.

“From our evidence-gathering… and new research, it is clear that complaints resolution in the legal services sector is not meeting consumers’ expectations as well as it might,” a paper going to this week’s meeting of the oversight regulator’s board says.

“We consider there needs to be a step-change improvement in complaints resolution and that better complaints handling at the first-tier [ie, by lawyers] will result in fewer complaints going to LeO [the Legal Ombudsman] at second tier, which in turn will enable a more efficient ombudsman service.

“Overall, consumers will have better outcomes and higher-quality legal services.”

Under section 112 of the Legal Services Act 2007, the LSB can specify what arrangements frontline regulators must have in place for how the lawyers they regulate deal with complaints. Under section 162, this can be supplemented with guidance.

The LSB last issued requirements and guidance in 2016 and a review of these has led to the conclusion that they need to be significantly beefed up.

As we reported last October, this could include stronger rules on how clients are informed about their right to complain, and ensuring verbal expressions of dissatisfaction are treated as complaints.

Subsequent research has identified key principles to underpin good complaints resolution – including empathy, transparency, accessibility, fairness, and ease of use – which will be reflected in the new rules, with specific examples and suggested good practice.

The paper said: “The existing s112 requirements state that regulators must require authorised persons to notify clients writing of their right to make a first-tier complaint, how and when they can do this, and of their right to make a second-tier complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.

“The requirements do not specify that these regulatory arrangements include detail on making complaints procedures easily accessible, how complaints ought to be considered and when i.e. promptly, effectively and fully.”

The LSB said it also wanted to convene “a voluntary group of interested stakeholders to collectively commit to a set of common objectives in aiming to deliver the best possible redress system for consumers”.

This would include engagement with regulators, representative bodies, LeO, the Legal Services Consumer Panel and consumer organisations.

The outcome might include “a statement of recognition from stakeholders that complaints resolution needs to work better for consumers and a pledge from stakeholders that they will work together to bring about improvements for consumers in first-tier complaints”.

The draft revised requirements, guidance and statement of policy are likely to be presented to next month’s meeting of the LSB’s board with a view to a consultation on them.

Meanwhile, three new members have been appointed to the LSB:

  • Kate Briscoe, chief executive and co-founder of online legal advice forum LegalBeagles and legal comparison site JustBeagle;
  • Lizzie Peers, who has been a non-executive director at various organisations, including the Ministry of Justice, the National Police Chiefs’ Council and the Local Government Boundary Commission for England. She has over 20 years of experience as an external auditor and regulator with the Audit Commission and Ernst and Young; and
  • Clare Brown, a public law barrister at 2 Temple Gardens and a senior lecturer on the Bar course at City Law School. She replaces Jemima Coleman, a consultant and employment law specialist at City firm Simmons & Simmons.

    Readers Comments

  • Michael Robinson says:

    Basically, give every complainant, no matter how valid the complaint the space to whine on until you finally give them some money.

  • Mike Clark says:

    In the legal sector, a complaint often falls at the first hurdle (the law firm), because of the mindset of lawyers, which results from their training and culture.

    When a law firm receives a complaint, a lawyer no longer sees the complainant as a client – but an adverse party in a potential litigation. Consequently, the complaint is not met by empathy, humility and understanding – but aggressive counter-accusations, denials and threats. Also, a law firm is reluctant to apologise because a lawyer sees any apology as a potential liability which might lead to a claim.

    The first tier complaints procedure in the legal sector will only improve if (a) law firms have mandatory training in complaints handling (b) complaints in firms are handled by non-lawyer client managers.

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