Legal Ombudsman delays – still lengthy but falling

McFadden: LeO aims to be a constructive and strategic voice for improvement

Complaints to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) that require investigation will have to wait for nearly three months before work begins and up to nine months for a conclusion.

This does represent an improvement, however, as the size of the investigation queue of cases accepted but not allocated to an investigator has long been its biggest problem.

LeO’s 2024/25 plan, published yesterday, said it was having to find “the best balance” between cost and customer journey – we reported last week that its budget is up 7% for this year at £18m, paid for by a levy paid by all authorised lawyers.

The queue hit a peak of 5,862 on 31 March 2022 and fell 27% to 4,282 a year later, but a long way short of the original target and goal of effectively clearing it to a working level of 500-1,000 by 31 March 2024.

The figure was revised last summer to ‘fewer than 2,000 cases’ but in the draft business plan, published last October, LeO admitted that it would not meet that target either. It forecast 2,856 cases still in the queue on 31 March 2024, a figure that rose yet again in January to 3,000.

The final plan said this should fall to around 1,650 by 31 March 2025. The aim is that, by then, there will be an average wait of 85 days for allocation to an investigator, and between 130 and 180 days for resolution.

The plan also showed the progress LeO has been made since the focus was put on informal early resolution techniques.

As at the end of December 2023, LeO’s third quarter, 45% of all cases had been resolved within 90 days; in 2021/22, 80% were taking more than 180 days.

“The half of LeO’s customers whose complaints have been resolved through early resolution could expect, on average, to get an outcome within 60 days – with no waiting time at all from the point LeO has all the information it needs to determine it has jurisdiction,” it said.

At the queue’s peak in 2022, customers could expect to wait up to two years before their complaint reached an investigator.

“The trajectory for reaching a working level queue will extend over a longer period, into 2025/26, reflecting the balance LeO is aiming to strike between continuing to improve customers’ experience and absorbing demand to minimise costs,” the plan said.

This was also against a background of 13% more contacts with LeO, although only a small percentage result in formal complaints – it expects 140,000 contacts this year and to take on 7,700 as complaints. The aim is to resolve 8,400 complaints in 2024/25, 9% higher than forecast for last year.

Among the problems is that 45% of complaints LeO investigated last year involved inadequate handling by the lawyer involved.

Despite the budget increase, the plan does raise the possibility of having to seek additional cash during the year in the event of “further sustained increase in demand”.

A further increase of 5% in demand would require a full additional team at a cost of about £600,000.

Other projects for the coming year include completing a ‘lean’ review, mapping of LeO’s end-to-end process to help identify where it can further reduce wait times and improve the overall experience. LeO will also consider the potential for using artificial intelligence.

It has been under pressure to move quickly to publishing its decisions in full but the business plan commits only to making “greater use of our powers to publish ombudsman decisions in the public interest – while delivering a plan to further increase the transparency and impact of LeO’s decisions, including the potential to publish them in full”.

LeO will pilot and evaluate targeted complaints-handling interventions with legal providers and engage with them “to explore options for funding this work sustainably, including how we could recover the costs of training to minimise the impact on the levy”.

It is also taking on four staff to create a “targeted programme of learning and insight” for the profession in 2024/25.

Chief ombudsman Paul Mc Fadden said: “We’re ambitious about establishing LeO as a constructive and strategic voice for improvement.

“It’s an ambition rooted in the idea that complaints don’t only matter individually – but taken together, create a bigger picture of what’s happening in legal services, what’s going wrong, and what needs to change so that people get the service they’re relying on at critical times in their lives.

“Our ability to deliver relevant, impactful learning and insight depends on our providing a timely, effective and efficient service. Our budget reflects our aim to strike a balance between continuing to improve customers’ experience and absorbing demand to minimise costs.”

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