The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) is seeking to increase its budget by 20% in the next financial year to “radically” improve the time it takes to deal with complaints and “eliminate all unnecessary waiting time”.
In a draft strategy and business plan for 2020-23 published for consultation yesterday, the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), which supervises LeO, said work would also begin on developing “any artificial intelligence (AI) mechanisms we find effective” within 12 months.
The OLC said it had “historically worked hard to reduce costs” but the cost of operations was “clearly related” to case closures. These increased from 6,125 a year in April 2017-18, to 6,206 in 2018-19 and an anticipated 7,200 in 2019-20. The OLC’s estimate for April 2020-21 is 8,460.
Increasing case closures “significantly” was in line with the OLC’s ambition to “improve customer journey times radically and eliminate all unnecessary waiting time in our process”.
To achieve this, the OLC said its budget would rise from £12.3m in April 2019-20 to 2020, to £14.8m in April 2020-21, before falling back to £14.4m in April 2021-22 and £14m in 2022-23. Any increase to LeO’s budget would need to be approved by the Legal Services Board.
The OLC said that, of the £2.4m increase proposed for April 2020-21, £1.2m would be needed to additional staff to achieve increased case closures, £400,000 for investment in “feedback to the profession” and the remaining £800,000 for IT costs and inflation.
LeO has undergone substantial process change in recent years, but while it has met some of the secondary timeliness performance measures for dealing with complaints, it has not achieved others and overall not reached the overall performance sought.
Outgoing OLC chair Wanda Goldwag said: “We recognise that the delays faced by some complainants and service providers have not represented the standard of service we want to offer.”
In her introduction to the new strategy, Rebecca Marsh, chief ombudsman and chief executive of LeO, said: “Performance has been getting better over the past year and we will be able to reduce waiting times by two-thirds by March 2020.
“We are now working at maximum efficiency for the staff we currently have, and so to go beyond this we will need to increase our operational staff.
“Our proposed budget increase of £2.4m next year reflects this, as well as our commitment to increase our learning and feedback work for the sector.”
Ms Marsh said LeO wanted to take an approach to complaints which got “to the heart of a dispute”.
The OLC said that over the next 12 months it would focus on cases where poor service had a “clear negative impact on people” and take “a more robust approach where our involvement would not add any value”.
The OLC has already “started scoping the potential of artificial intelligence to benefit different aspects of our business process”.
Over the next 12 months, it promised to develop “any artificial intelligence mechanisms that we find effective through our scoping project”.
The OLC did not expect this year’s planned capital budget of £250,000 to increase the following year. Included in this year’s spending are “proof-of-concept AI projects”.
The organisation’s three overall strategic objectives for April 2020 to April 2023 are “improving the experience of our service for complainants and service providers”; increasing “transparency and impact of our casework to support greater access to justice”; and “developing our service to ensure it is appropriate for the evolving legal sector”.