The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) badly missed its targets over the last year following an unexpected surge in complex complaints against lawyers.
LeO had expected a fall in the number of complaints to around 7,000, but in fact it rose 4% from 7,223 to 7,527.
Its annual report for the year to 31 March 2018 said: “The combination of this significant increase in demand in the legal jurisdiction in the first half of the year and then very high staff turnover in the second half of the year had a profound effect upon performance.”
Notably there was a 7% drop in the number of cases resolved in 2017-18, from 6,573 to 6,125, with LeO saying cases were becoming more complex.
“This leads us to believe that the more straightforward matters that we used to see are being dealt with effectively by service providers,” chief ombudsman Rebecca Marsh wrote.
LeO’s timeliness performance indicator is to resolve 60% of cases in 90 days, 90% in 180 days and 100% in 365 days – it met none of these.
The best it managed in any one month was 49% in 90 days and 79% in 180 days, both in April 2017.
LeO beat its target for overall customer satisfaction irrespective of outcome, which is judged from surveys of complainants. It is required to score no lower than 40% each quarter, and managed just over 50%.
This all led to the unit cost of complaints – the number of resolved complaints divided by LeO’s budget – going up from £1,552 to £1,787.
However, there was a significant reduction in complaints about claims management companies – a jurisdiction that moves next year to the Financial Conduct Authority – as it accepted 1,212 cases in the year, down from 2,290 over the previous 12 months.
“This is probably due to fewer CMCs operating an up-front fee business model, which is where we have seen most complaints historically,” the report said. LeO was much closer to meeting its timeliness targets here.
During the year, 37% of cases against lawyers were resolved by informal resolution, 33% by ombudsman decision and the remaining 30% were closed by other means; this included cases that were unable to proceed or were withdrawn.
A financial remedy was ordered in a third of cases, with a fee-related remedy – such as a refund – in a further 11%. There was a non-financial remedy, like an apology, ordered in 3% of cases. In 53%, there was no remedy required.
Evidence of poor service was identified in 46% of the ombudsman decisions made. As in previous years, delay/failure to progress was the main source of complaint, followed by failure to advise, failure to follow instructions, poor communication, and costs – the latter being the only complaint type on a downward trend.
The areas of law most complained about stayed steady as conveyancing (24% of all complaints), personal injury (15%), family (13%), wills and probate (12%), and litigation (10%).
It has been a year of change at LeO, with a new chief executive, a new chief ombudsman and new members of the Office of Legal Complaints (OLC) – the body that oversees LeO – joining the organisation.
In her introduction to the report, Wanda Goldwag, chair of the OLC, said: “Modernisation has been the key focus in 2017-18, in line with the new three-year strategy launched in April 2017.
“The priority has been to get the organisation into the right long-term shape to discharge its statutory responsibilities to the highest standards of quality and timeliness.”
This included investment in new processes, “a more flexible staffing model”, a new Cloud-based IT infrastructure and telephony and a “new, more robust case management system”.
Ms Goldwag said: “Having delivered the major changes required of the modernisation programme, the focus in 2018-19 will be translating that investment into sustainable improvement in performance against the new [key performance indicators].
“The OLC has increased its resource allocation for 2018-19 to create sustainable improvements in productivity, performance and quality…
“The OLC is under no illusion about the scale of the task and recognises that it will take time to address the Legal Ombudsman’s current challenges, particularly if case numbers and complexity continue to increase in the legal jurisdiction.”