The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has achieved the required step-change in performance in the last year, it has declared, with waiting times finally falling as 44% more cases were resolved.
The annual report of the Office for Legal Complaints – LeO’s governing board – showed that its push to resolve cases at an early stage has surpassed expectations, with 57% of all complaints LeO resolved going through an early resolution process, compared with an anticipated 34%.
In the year to 31 March 2023, LeO received 111,614 contacts and enquiries, up 4% on 2021/22, of which 7,824 became actual complaints, a 6% increase.
It resolved a record 9,487 complaints, 44% more than in the previous year – although short of its “ambitious” target of 10,000, which it put down to staffing problems – with 5,380 through early resolution, where people received an outcome in an average of 64 days.
In March 2023, LeO resolved more than 1,000 complaints, the highest of any month in its history.
Early resolution processes include identifying where the lawyer has already made an offer which is of higher or equal value to any remedy LeO could reasonably order and identifying a remedy without the need for a lengthy investigation “based on our expertise and experience” and then negotiating settlement between complainant and lawyer.
Residential conveyancing accounted for 31% of complaints, followed by wills and probate (14%), personal injury (11%), and family and litigation (both 10%).
The organisation’s major problem in recent times has been the size of the pre-assessment pool – cases accepted but not yet allocated to an investigator – which stood at 5,862 last year. It has fallen 27% to 4,282 this but is well short of the 3,109 that was the target.
LeO hopes the pool will contain fewer than 2,000 cases by 31 March 2024.
The fact that old cases are now finally going through the system means that average customer journey times where there is no early resolution have actually gone up.
The time taken to resolve low-complexity complaints has increased from 356 days to 399, from 526 days to 613 for medium-complexity complaints, and from 745 days to 778 for high-complexity complaints. LeO said it expected these times to go down as the backlog is cleared.
But with early resolution taken into account, the average length of customer journey for all complainants fell from 376 days to 282.
This was made up of an average wait time of 185 days – down 15% – and a resolution time of 97 days after a case was allocated to an investigator.
Elisabeth Davies, chair of the Office for Legal Complaints, said the new approaches to early resolution have “transformed outcomes for people relying on LeO”.
She continued: “This transformation has come from greater efficiency and proportionality, where LeO has aimed to resolve cases at the earliest possible stage given their individual circumstances.
“As this report shows, this greater proportionality hasn’t come at the expense of quality – an area where the OLC board has sought specific assurance.
“LeO has continued to provide empathetic and effective responses to complaints, as legal service users and providers should expect. But wherever possible it has done this much more quickly.”
Ms Davies acknowledged that “the journey is not yet over”, but said the report showed an organisation “that is and deserves to be increasingly confident – as a service, as an employer, and as a voice for improvement in the legal sector”.
Chief ombudsman Paul McFadden added: “This time last year, we said 2022/23 would be a key year for LeO in our journey towards reaching and sustaining an acceptable performance.
“We said that changes to our processes would transform and rebalance our service, so that we resolve complaints at the earliest possible opportunity. Today, we can say we have delivered this step change.”
He argued that the increased funding LeO has received from the profession in the last two years “has paid off significantly”.
LeO is receiving an “inflationary” 9.6% increase in its budget for 2023-24, to £16.8m, and the annual report indicated that more might be needed to recruit and retain staff, which has been another of its big problems.
Mr McFadden wrote: “Our latest Civil Service survey results show further substantial increases in all areas except pay and benefits. To deliver for our customers, we need to retain and recruit skilled people.
“Until we can improve our offer, our ability to do so will remain constrained.”
Significant changes to LeO’s scheme rules came into effect in April and the annual report said it would set out plans for a further review of the rules this year.
“This will ask more fundamental questions about LeO’s rules, powers and case fees, and how it can be agile in response to changes in customers’ expectations and the legal sector.”
Ombudsman Amanda Charlton will be speaking about complaints in personal injury at PI Futures on 21 September in Leeds.