LeO seeks £1.2m budget increase as complaints numbers rise

Complaints: Rising number

The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has proposed a 7% increase, or £1.2m, in its budget to nearly £18m next year, with delays at the complaints-handling body set to continue for longer than anticipated.

Cases that require a full investigation are still taking many months to be completed, although the average time continues to fall.

LeO’s draft business plan for 2024/25 said rising demand meant it had extended the trajectory for reducing the pre-assessment pool – cases accepted but not yet allocated to an investigator – to an acceptable level.

The plan was published for consultation by the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) – the board that oversees LeO – and it said the ombudsman has this year maintained the progress made in 2022/23 (LeO’s year runs to 31 March).

So far in 2023/24, 44% of all cases have been resolved within 90 days; as recently as 2021/22, 80% were taking more than 180 days.

This is mainly because of the focus on early resolution, which affect half of LeO’s cases. Customers going through this receive an outcome within 60 days on average as there is no waiting for an investigator to be assigned.

The size of the pre-assessment pool – which LeO is now calling the investigation queue – has long been its biggest problem.

It hit a peak of 5,862 on 31 March 2022 and fell 27% to 4,282 this March, but a long way short of the original target and goal of effectively clearing it to a working level of 500-1,000 by 31 March 2024.

This figure was still being cited earlier this year but was revised in the summer to ‘fewer than 2,000 cases’.

But LeO is now forecasting that it will not meet that target either, with 2,856 cases still in the queue on 31 March 2024, reducing to around 1,650 a year later.

“The trajectory for reaching a working level queue will extend over a longer period, into 2025/26, reflecting the balance LeO is aiming to strike between continuing to improve customers’ experience and absorbing demand to minimise costs,” the draft plan said.

But the plan said the profile of the queue has changed “significantly” as it works through the backlog.

“At the queue’s peak in 2022, customers could expect to wait up to 16 to 24 months before their complaint reached an investigator.

“The half of cases that are resolved by early resolution now have no wait time. For the half needing an investigation, by the end of March 2024 LeO expects the average waiting time in the queue to be 170 days for all case complexities: 50 days shorter than the 2022/23 average…

“By the end of March 2025, for the half of customers requiring an investigation, LeO expects the average customer journey time to be between 205 and 255 days for cases of all complexities.

“This is made up of a forecast waiting time of around 115 days for all complexities to be allocated to an investigator, and between 90 and 140 days for resolution, depending on individual complexity.”

A key reason LeO has under-performed in the current year, the plan said, was the new scheme rules introduced on 1 April 2023, which gave greater discretion to reject complaints. For an initial period, LeO has been checking how the discretion was applied in every case.

“This process, while the right approach, has taken significantly more time and resource than originally anticipated.

“The need to direct resource to checks in the initial period has restricted the flow of cases through LeO’s process… this also means LeO hasn’t resolved as many cases as expected so far in 2023/24.”

Among the “high-level factors” behind rising numbers of complaints LeO is receiving is the poor quality of lawyer’s own complaint handling; nearly a third of complaints that went to an ombudsman for a final decision in the last year involved inadequate first-tier complaint handling.

Delays in the wider justice system could “result in an increase in the number of consumers expressing dissatisfaction with the legal service they have received” as well.

LeO is paid for by a levy on the legal profession. Its budget rose 13% in 2021/22, 5.3% in 2022/23 and 9.6% in the current year, and is proposing a 7% inflation increase to just shy of £18m for next year – of the proposed increase, 59% relates to a 5% pay rise for staff.

Staffing has long been a problem for LeO and the plan said a further increase of 5% in demand would require recruiting a full additional team, including supporting ombudsman, at a cost of around £600,000, and it would then need up to a year to reach desired levels of productivity.

Among the more eye-catching operational proposals in the draft plan are for LeO to make greater use of its powers to publish ombudsman decisions, “while delivering a plan to further increase the transparency and impact of LeO’s decisions, including the potential to publish them in full”.

It would also “pilot and evaluate targeted complaints-handling interventions with legal providers, building an evidence base for what works and the impact this can have”.

The OLC also published for consultation a draft strategy for the three years from 1 April 2024. It vision is “for LeO to become a leading and trusted ombudsman scheme, where every complaint helps drive better legal services”.

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