The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) will finally be able to look the profession in the eye again next year when it clears the backlog of complaints, its chair has said.
However, Wanda Goldwag said it faced the challenge of changing consumer expectations of how quickly complaints are now handled.
Speaking at the recent conference of the Professional Paralegal Register, Ms Goldwag – who took over as chair of the Office for Legal Complaints, the body that oversees LeO, 18 months ago – recalled how LeO’s accounts had been qualified three years in a row, but had been clean for the last two.
She said: “What we understood is that we were really not fit for market… So we brought in a new claims management system, we’ve refreshed our business process, we’ve changed our staffing models and so, and we’re focusing on performance.
“We’re doing that because I arrived to discover we had thousands of cases in a backlog. Here we are, saying to lawyers ‘You are not doing things in a timely manner’, and the answer would be ‘Look in the mirror’. And that’s a completely valid challenge.”
Ms Goldwag said LeO’s performance had improved “enormously” as a result, but there was still more to do.
“Complaints coming in now are being handled within a couple of weeks and that’s what consumers expect.
“We have a backlog of complaints that have been there for a while, and that is what we are grinding through at the moment. By the end of 18/19 year [31 March 2019], we should be back to a decent system.”
But she noted that as LeO improved, others were getting faster, speaking about her experience of using eBay’s complaints system, where her problem was sorted out in 35 minutes.
“So people are not comparing the complaints handling of the Legal Ombudsman now to what we were doing two years ago… they’re saying ‘Gosh, it’s still taking weeks? In other places it’s taking much less time’.”
Changing consumer expectations were also behind the Competition and Markets Authority’s recommendations on greater price and service transparency by lawyers, she said – these are now being implemented by all the different legal regulators.
“The horror at the idea that you might tell somebody beforehand what the price of something is has been extraordinary,” she said.
“The profession as a whole did not welcome the CMA’s initiatives but, whether you welcome them or not, that is where society’s going and so you need to be up to speed.”
Ms Goldwag also talked about the changing world of work – with people working remotely for companies from different continents – and predicted that “quite a lot of the [legal work] that we do now may not physically happen in the United Kingdom. I think that’s a positive thing”.
But technology also came with challenges, she acknowledged. “How do you handle a complaint where what actually happened is the robot got it wrong, the AI was incorrectly programmed. Whose responsibility is that?
“At the moment, it’s the lawyer’s responsibility, but you can see a situation where it would be perfectly reasonable for the defence to be, ‘I’m sorry, the programmer got it wrong’.”