The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) closed more cases in the first nine months of its current year than it did in the whole of the previous 12 months – but is still behind schedule to slash its backlog of complaints.
This is in part due to staff turmoil, with recruitment unable to keep up with the continued high churn of employees.
The pre-assessment pool – accepted cases that have not yet been allocated to an investigator – has been the big problem for LeO for some years.
It was 5,862 on 1 April 2022, the start of the financial year – meaning that complainants could wait months just for their case to be considered – and the plan was for this to be 3,109 a year later.
While the number has dropped every month, the latest performance report indicates that LeO will fall 7-9% short of the target for the PAP. However, it said the goal of reducing it to between 500 and 1,000 by March 2024 was still within reach.
This would mean cases only waiting four to six weeks to be accepted for investigation and over 60% of cases being dealt with in an average of around 120 days in total.
Elisabeth Davies, chair of the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) – the board that oversees LeO – said in a letter to the Legal Services Board this month that though the failure to meet the target for the year was “disappointing”, it was important to look at the “overall context and progress”.
LeO has closed 54% more cases year on year, resolving 6,900 complaints by the end of December. This exceeded the performance in each of the previous two full years with a quarter remaining.
Ms Davies said it was clear that LeO “continues to face a number of challenges and risks over which it has limited control – namely around staff retention given the competitive local and national job market and salary rates – despite doing everything possible to minimise impact and mitigate against these”.
Though the staff attrition rate has fallen a little, it remains over 21% and the most recent recruitment campaign saw 20 new investigators hired – but there were 34 vacancies and this shortfall would contribute to missing the PAP target.
A paper before last month’s OLC board meeting said: “LeO is not competitive for the highly skilled staff required to deliver on complex investigations… The recruitment market remains buoyant, causing challenges in both attrition and recruitment to replace.”
Sickness absence levels have also continued to reduce but again remain high at more than 12 days of sickness per employee in a rolling year, down from a high of 16 days in July.
Having largely exhausted the recruitment market in Birmingham – where it is based – LeO has been looking at other options and will soon open a hub in Leeds for a small number of the new staff, following a pilot of the concept in Cardiff last year.
In her letter, Ms Davies said: “Attention is rightly being paid to finding the right balance – on the one hand reflecting the disappointment we all feel at not being further along on the improvement trajectory and needing to be on top of why this is; on the other hand, doing justice to the significant improvement that has been delivered over the last two years and not underplaying nor undervaluing this in any way.”
LeO should report soon on its consultation on a proposed 9.6% increase in its budget to £16.8m and put the final figure to the Legal Services Board for approval.
On 1 April, LeO’s new scheme rules will come into force. Among other changes, they will cut the time limit for complaining from six years to only one year.