Legal Ombudsman forced to revise backlog figure upwards – again

Freer: Early resolution has helped

The queue of cases awaiting investigation at the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) is not falling as fast as had been expected, with the March 2024 target having been revised upwards for a third time.

It comes as justice minister Mike Freer spoke of a “transformation” in LeO’s performance.

The size of the investigation queue – what LeO used to call the pre-assessment pool – has long been its biggest problem.

It 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 its draft 2024/25 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, reducing to around 1,650 a year later.

That figure has now risen yet again, now to 3,000 by 31 March 2024. In her regular ‘voluntary assurance letter’ sent to the Legal Services Board, Elisabeth Davies, chair of LeO’s governing board, the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), said this was due to “increased demand and attrition in the first half of the year, which have led to more cases needing to be reallocated to other staff”.

Ms Davies said retention remained a “central challenge” for LeO, with a “deeper dive” into attrition planned for this month, followed by a workshop.

However, she said LeO’s performance “made a strong start” to the last quarter of 2023, with “a higher number of  complaint resolutions, an improving customer journey time, and a continued reduction in the queue of people waiting for investigation”.

The improvement came despite increased demand, with a rise of 13% in contacts and 3% in new complaints received by LeO.

The chair reported too that a separate consultation on the OLC’s strategy for 2024-7 showed that a “majority of stakeholders” had maintained their increased confidence in LeO, “with a couple of exceptions expressing more caution and a desire for greater focus on reducing LeO’s customer queue”.

Meanwhile, answering a written question from Conservative MP Laurence Robertson on processing times at LeO, Mr Freer said LeO and the OLC had been “transparent that waiting times experienced by consumers and legal providers” remained too long.

But against “a backdrop of increasing demand”, LeO had “made progress in reducing waiting times in recent years”.

A “key driver” was the introduction of early resolution in 2022/23: “Before this transformation, all complaints referred to LeO would have been put in a queue waiting to be assessed.

“Today, over half of complaints are resolved through early resolution and customers can expect to have their cases resolved within an average of 60 days.”

Mr Freer said that so far in 2023/24, 44% of all cases had been resolved within 90 days, compared to the situation in 2021/22, when 80% were taking more than 180 days.

Responding to a further question from Mr Robertson, Mr Freer said that at the queue’s peak in 2022, customers could expect to wait for 16 to 24 months before their complaint reached an investigator. “Half of LeO’s customers’ cases are now resolved by early resolution, with no wait time.”

Mr Freer said the latest figures from LeO showed that the average journey time for customers whose complaints were resolved through early resolutions had fallen from 68 days in April 2023 to 42 days in December 2023.

“For those customers whose complaints are investigated, journey times have also reduced in the same period. Against a backdrop of an increase in demand, the LeO has made progress in reducing waiting times in recent years and anticipates a 30% reduction by the end of the year.”

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