The Law Society has called on the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) to take “radical action” to cut the growing backlog of complaints.
“Our overarching concern is that whilst there has been some improvement in LeO’s performance, it has not been to the levels expected and at the required pace,” it said.
The society said measures such outsourcing and new scheme rules should be considered alongside better use of technology to manage its workload better.
The current year’s 13% budget increase was meant to help LeO reduce the pre-assessment pool (PAP) – cases accepted but awaiting investigation – from over 5,000 cases to 4,696 by next March.
But its draft 2022/23 business plan and budget predicted instead a jump to 6,732 ahead of a slower reduction than anticipated.
In its response to the consultation on the business plan, the Law Society said this raised “reputational risks” for the profession. It also questioned how “realistic” the projections about future performance were.
It suggested a dedicated team with a checklist target the backlog, so that low-complexity cases could be sifted out where they were outside LeO’s jurisdiction, the service provider had provided reasonable service or the complainant “may have changed their mind”.
LeO believes around 25% of cases could be suitable for early closure or dismissal for these reasons.
The Law Society also urged LeO to implement the ‘radical options’ outlined in the business plan, such as outsourcing, demand management and reviewing the scheme rules.”
Outsourcing had “strong potential to make LeO a much more cost-effective organisation”, the response said, pointing out that it had been used successfully by LeO’s predecessor, the Law Society-run Legal Complaints Service.
The downside was that it was “difficult to see” how primary legislation to make this happen could be avoided.
The society backed a review of LeO’s rules to enable “some complaints to be dismissed without detailed consideration” in certain circumstances and at the earliest possible stage.
“Less radical methods” could speed up the process in the meantime, such as dealing more efficiently with the 110,000 enquiries LeO receives each year, often about non-legal services; only about 7,000 end up as complaints accepted for investigation.
The society recommended introducing a “comprehensive automated telephone service” to deal with non-legal service complaints, together with a chatbot or online chat service, so operators could handle two or three queries at once.
It also suggested removing negligence cases from LeO’s jurisdiction so it could “concentrate on dealing with service-related complaints only”.
The society argued that there should be “no consideration” of extending the scope of LeO’s services to unregulated providers until its performance issues were in hand.
It added: “We also have concerns about the increased budget request, particularly when assessed against this year’s underspend, LeO’s performance to date and the current economic challenges the profession faces caused by the pandemic…
“LeO therefore needs to consider how it can make costs savings through greater efficiencies.”
Law Society president I Stephanie Boyce added that LeO must take “radical action to increase the momentum of change”.
She went on: “It must make better use of existing resources and budget as well as deliver a much-improved service for its customers.
“We would support legislative changes that would allow it to outsource or amend its scheme rules to help reduce the backlog, otherwise there could be reputational risks to the profession and a reduction in public confidence in the ombudsman scheme.
“LeO must definitively address the underlying causes of staff underperformance, as well as high sickness and attrition levels to ensure it keeps up with the demand for its service.”