The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) is to press ahead with plans to publish its full decisions, as well as annual reviews of the most complained-about lawyers and firms, it has decided.
However, the impact of both Covid-19 and its standstill budget for this year – and the need to focus on improving poor levels of performance – mean that some of the work on improving transparency will be pushed into its 2021/22 business plan.
LeO issued a consultation paper last October, which received 17 responses – including one from an unnamed national newspaper – and in a response document published last week, it said many questioned whether any of the measures would provide useful information for people looking to choose a lawyer.
“Responses questioned whether the public would access our website as part of the decision-making process, and whether they would understand the information and read it in the correct context.”
While LeO agreed that the public may not naturally use its website to help choose a lawyer, “we do consider that complaints data should be part of the quality indicators that are available, and therefore making this available through our website so that others can make use of the data is important”.
It went on: “We also consider that it is equally as important that our data is used more generally to raise standards in the profession.”
There were concerns about whether the information would lead to unfair disadvantage to certain providers, especially if contextual information was unavailable, and many service providers who responded were worried that any decision made about a firm would be perceived negatively, regardless of whether it went their way or not.
LeO said: “We acknowledge that people without a reasonable understanding of our process or the operation of an ombudsman scheme may have this reaction, and so the robustness of the narrative provided with the data will be a high priority for us going forward.”
Concerns about publishing all ombudsman decisions in full focused on whether it would provide a fair representation of a firm’s service, and whether a member of the public would understand how a single or small number of complaints formed part of the wider picture of a provider.
LeO insisted it would be possible to provide “sufficient guidance” on its website to encourage people to think about issues such as the size of the firm.
The next step will be to design a full project with timescales, costs and implications for resources, and addressing also the concerns identified by respondents, and then “consult fully with the sector” before taking the project forward.
Annual reviews would be of a set percentage of providers, likely to be those with the highest number of complaints. LeO said it agreed with respondents that a pilot would be useful, although this will not happen until next year.
It will also look to create more filters to sort its decision data so that it can be better used by platforms such as comparison sites
LeO said contextualising its decisions would require the co-operation of the legal regulators – which would provide information on firm size, for example – and it planned to look at how to embed data from the Solicitors Register into its own, and also consider how Land Registry data might be used for conveyancing complaints.
It also wants to be able to publish a greater range of data about the complaints LeO receives, but the Legal Services Act 2007 only allows it to publish data from cases where an ombudsman has made a final decision.
“We cannot move forward with this at present,” the response said, but LeO will consider “options for research in order to base any future proposals on a clearer understanding of the information that would be helpful to the public”.