The Law Society and Bar Council have strongly attacked plans by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) to extend its publication of information about complaints, arguing that it would not help consumers.
However, the Legal Services Consumer Panel has strongly supported the proposals and called for their “brisk” implementation.
They were responding to LeO’s plans, announced in October, to publish its decisions in full, produce annual reviews of the most complained-about lawyers and firms, and in the long-term publish details of complaints resolved informally before final decisions are made.
At the moment, LeO publishes the names of all service providers that have been involved in complaints resolved by an ombudsman decision on a rolling 12-month basis, in a database that is updated every quarter.
This includes brief details about the types of complaints, remedies ordered, whether there was evidence of poor service and whether the first-tier complaints handling (ie, at provider level) was reasonable.
In its consultation response, the Law Society argued that publishing all final ombudsman decisions in full, with the client’s name removed, would not help consumers assess the quality of law firms.
“For example, a complaint about one specific fee-earner will not be reflective of a business overall which, say, employs 50 fee-earners.
“It would be unfair, as well as unreasonable, to suggest to service users that they can use the published decisions ‘as a tool to assess the quality of service’ of a firm based on one specific service complaint.”
The society also warned of reputational damage, “to small firms in particular”, which “could in some circumstances have an impact on their continued viability” and an “adverse impact” on equality and diversity, because of the higher proportion of small firms owned by black, Asian and minority ethnic solicitors.
The society said publication of annual reviews by LeO may result in an “inappropriate shift” in focus and resources away from complaints.
“Writing annual reviews is both time and labour intensive. If this option were to be taken forward, it could lead to even greater delays in dealing with complaints or require considerable additional resource not yet evaluated.
“It risks focusing legal service providers on influencing the annual review rather than effectively handling complaints.”
Chancery Lane said it would “strenuously oppose” any amendment of section 150 of the Legal Services Act 2007 to allow LeO to publish details of cases it resolves informally by agreed outcome or case decision.
“Firms often take a commercial view to resolve a complaint at first-tier, not necessarily because a complaint is valid.”
The Law Society promised to oppose any increase in LeO’s budget to fund publication of further details of complaints.
The Bar Council said that any move by LeO to publish additional data about complaints should be backed by “rigorous evidence-based analysis of the benefits, disadvantages and financial costs of doing so”.
Barristers were “particularly vulnerable to complaints”, partly because they operated in “adversarial circumstances” and increasingly came up against litigants-in-person, some of whom made “unfounded allegations”.
On the publication of annual reviews, the Bar Council said it would “strongly challenge” any action which may “publicly implicate particular service providers or professions” on the basis of number of complaints.
The Bar Council said LeO would need to have a “demonstrable need and justification” for raising more money from the profession to fund amendments to the Legal Services Act to allow publication of informal decisions.
However, the Legal Services Consumers Panel, which supports many of the changes, said LeO’s interpretation of section 150 in preventing it from publishing even a “contextualised summary and analysis” of informal decisions was “extremely narrow”.
Sarah Chambers, chair of the panel, said: “It hampers a key function of LeO – to cultivate and use the intelligence it gathers from its work to improve standards across the sector. We doubt that Parliament intended such a narrow application of section 150”.
Ms Chambers said publication of annual reviews “could indeed be useful” to consumers and should be tested by LeO.
She added that, back in 2016, the panel recommended that LeO should publish its decisions in full.
Ms Chambers said LeO had responded by saying “its website was not fit for publishing decisions” and an IT project would rectify this. The panel accepted these justifications at the time, but now wanted to see a “realistic but brisk” timetable for implementing the change.
Among the advantages of publishing decisions in full were helping consumers understand how decisions were made, highlighting “recurrent service failures by particular providers” and allowing regulators to identify trends.