The Legal Services Consumer Panel has put pressure on the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) to move more quickly towards publishing its decisions in full.
Chair Sarah Chambers acknowledged that there were “risks” with publishing, but said there was “sufficient mitigation to enable this to happen” and bring LeO more in line with its peers.
She described LeO as “an outlier” amongst comparable ombuds schemes on this.
Ms Chambers was giving the panel’s other positive response to the draft 2024-25 business plan and 2024-27 strategy published last year by the Office for Legal Complaints, the board that oversees LeO.
The business plan proposed making greater use of LeO’s powers to publish decisions, “while delivering a plan to further increase the transparency and impact of LeO’s decisions, including the potential to publish them in full”.
The strategy talked about making “greater use of our powers to publish ombudsman decisions in the public interest”.
This issue has been around since the creation of LeO and in September 2020, following a consultation, it said it would press ahead with publication. However, this was delayed because of Covid and has since been effectively pushed into the long grass.
Ms Chambers argued that publishing in full fitted with LeO’s stated strategic objective of using the intelligence and insights it gathered to raise standards in the sector.
“While we acknowledge that such a move is rarely straightforward and accept the administrative barriers and burden which make this goal complicated, none of these challenges are insurmountable…
“We remain of the view that LeO should be moving towards publishing its ombudsman decisions in full. More importantly, it should aim to do so in the lifespan of this strategy.
“To make this a reality, there must be a transparent action plan with timelines, milestones, stakeholder engagement and consultation periods embedded into the process.
“It is unsatisfactory that a clear roadmap for action has not been outlined for this work in this strategy.”
Ms Chambers said the panel would also like to see LeO look again at third-party complaints during the lifetime of the strategy.
LeO is unable to investigate complaints when the people losing out are not the lawyer’s client. “For many years, the panel has said that in certain situations, third parties should be able to complain to the Legal Ombudsman and obtain a remedy for the harm they suffer,” she wrote.
“We know that there are some situations where third-party complaints are accepted by LeO (probate, for example).
“We accept that lawyers must act in the best interests of their client and do so robustly. We are therefore not advocating for every third-party complaint to be investigated. However, the current system is opaque.”
She said LeO should to set out clearly the circumstances in which it did and did not accept third-party complaints and provide more data on the ones it receives.
Ms Chambers stressed that the panel was not calling for new consumer rights, “but a more coherent and streamlined manner of dealing with legal complaints in line with some of the wider outcomes highlighted in the consultation document eg empowering people to use LeO to obtain redress instead of going to court”.
She pointed out that ombuds schemes in other sectors already considered third-party complaints and said it would support the goal of raising standards.
“Without this right, lawyers have a weak incentive to act fairly towards third parties and lawyers will carry on making the same mistakes because there isn’t the opportunity for them or regulators to learn from complaints.”