Efforts to close cases more quickly are having a positive impact on the performance of the Legal Ombudsman, with an influx of new recruits set to speed up progress, the chief ombudsman has told Legal Futures.
Recent months has seen LeO close more cases than expected despite not having a full complement of staff, meaning that the pre-assessment pool (PAP) – cases accepted but not yet allocated to an investigator – will not be as big at the end of this month as feared.
LeO has been in crisis over the last three years as the PAP has grown and the time taken to resolve complaints lengthened amid huge levels of staff discontent.
Chief ombudsman Paul McFadden said in an interview that “I don’t think the scheme is set up to get to the right outcome at the right point”.
Though the intention was for LeO to resolve complaints “with minimal formality”, he explained, there were aspects of the Legal Services Act provisions and scheme rules “that tend to do the opposite”.
One long-standing issue is that far more complaints go all the way to a full ombudsman decision than was ever anticipated – and yet in 80% of cases, the ombudsman followed the investigator’s recommendation.
“We need to start managing that better,” Mr McFadden said. “If you see cases at an early point that there’s going to be very little need for investigation to get to the right point, why should there be multiple layers?”
Since Elisabeth Davies took over as chair of the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) – the board that oversees LeO – nearly two years ago, and the subsequent appointment of Mr McFadden, a former Local Government Commissioner for Standards, there has been a notable shift in approach.
LeO’s 2022/23 business plan has been submitted for approval by the Legal Services Board and the draft that went out for consultation last November was candid that performance was going to get worse before it improved.
Most recently, the OLC issued a consultation on changes to the scheme rules to reduce the PAP facilitate the quicker resolution of cases.
LeO already has put a number of initiatives in place, including telling complainants when the legal services provider has made a reasonable offer, guided negotiations, using ‘nudge’ strategies, and creating the post of general enquiry team investigator, whose role is to produce “investigation-ready files” and close low-complexity cases at an earlier stage.
The first two have helped settle around 900 cases this year. “It’s a lot less resource to achieve that outcome and the early indication is that they reduce journey time by 50%,” said Mr McFadden.
LeO is also planning to apply a proportionality test to new cases and those in the PAP where poor service is found but it caused low or no detriment to the client.
Mr McFadden said the service had now reached “a point of stability in terms of performance”, meeting targets for five months running, with the new ways of working delivering “a lot more quickly” than expected.
Notably, while the draft business plan predicted that the PAP would have grown from 5,000 to 6,700 in the year to 31 March 2022, in fact it will be at least 400 lower.
LeO will have achieved 90% of what it set out in its current business plan by then as well.
The simple reason for not doing better was people, both attrition and recruitment difficulties, Mr McFadden said. LeO has had up to 20% fewer people on the operations side than it needed.
The big change now is that LeO is not restricting recruitment to the midlands, where it is based and has struggled to fill vacancies.
It is now looking for staff nationally, through potentially creating ‘hubs’ elsewhere in the country as well as more hybrid and remote working. As a result, a campaign over the autumn and winter attracted 900 applicants.
Some 41 investigators are joining the organisation this month, actually 12 more than presently needed in anticipation of attrition in the coming months.
The plan is for the PAP to fall to 3,000 in another year and a “working level” of 600-1,000 in 2024. Once it is under control, Mr McFadden said LeO should be able to make decisions on cases “within weeks”.
He said the transparency push had improved relationships with the professional bodies – “what we hear from the Law Society is that this is exactly what they’ve been waiting for” – but equally meant “a lot of scrutiny”.
At the same time, it “allows people to understand the nature of the challenge”, such as why it takes nine months for investigators to get up to speed.
Mr McFadden said: “When you get to that point, there’s a level of engagement and realisation that’s mature.”
We can also reveal that Sandra Strinati, who joined LeO as chief operating officer at the start of 2021, at the same time as Mr McFadden, will be leaving in July.