Approval for a 13% increase in the budget of the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has come with a warning that it must make deliver this time or face losing its role in dealing with complaints against lawyers.
The Legal Services Board (LSB) said the level of investment requested was necessary to give LeO an opportunity to address performance issues which have only worsened as a result of Covid-19.
The Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), the board that oversees LeO, requested a 2021/22 budget of £14.5m, having scaled back its original proposal to seek £15.3m.
But in a letter to her OLC counterpart Elisabeth Davies, LSB chair Dr Helen Phillips said: “The board was clear that it needs to see results this time, following a history of promises of improvement that have failed to materialise.
“The board expressed confidence in the OLC’s leadership, but should the expected benefits not materialise, then we would be justified in calling on the government to pursue alternative arrangements to deliver effective consumer redress in the sector.”
Dr Phillips said “the size of the investment for the slow rate of improvement set out in the OLC’s application” meant it was not an “easy decision” for the board to make.
But this forecast was the minimum expectation, she acknowledged, and did not take into account various planned innovations in how LeO operates.
These include requiring lawyers to respond to a standardised information request at the point a complaint is accepted for assessment, rather than waiting until the investigation starts to request information; introducing adjudication for some lower-complexity work, rather than supporting parties in trying to reach an agreement between themselves; and using artificial intelligence to automate some of the initial processing and triage complaints.
Dr Phillips also stressed the responsibility the LSB and OLC now shared to be transparent on LeO’s performance.
“It will be important for our organisations, in consultation with the Ministry of Justice, to quickly reach agreement on an enhanced public reporting approach that can strengthen confidence in the scheme.”
She added that addressing LeO’s performance problems was “a shared responsibility involving a range of stakeholders”, with improvements needed in other parts of the system too, including in how lawyers initially deal with complaints.
Ms Davies said approval of the budget provided the OLC with “the opportunity to rebuild confidence in the Legal Ombudsman and respond to the questions from the sector that were raised during the recent consultation process”.
She continued: “We are in no doubt that LeO must now deliver improvement and at pace, for its customers, staff and the wider sector. The focus will be on reducing the backlog and we will be working with the wider sector to ensure that information about LeO’s performance is clearly understood.”
A Law Society spokeswoman said: “We are pleased that the OLC has taken onboard stakeholder feedback and amended its original business plan and budget application.
“In particular, we welcome it prioritising the reduction of the backlog, adopting a more realistic recruitment plan and focusing on improving existing processes and staff performance to achieve greater efficiencies.
“It is regrettable that the OLC has been unable to access its reserves, which are there to help the organisation in challenging times, notably the current Covid-19 crisis.
“Whilst some concerns remain about the detail of the approved budget, we welcome the establishment of a stakeholder advisory group and enhanced reporting of performance and increased transparency of progress on an ongoing basis.”