The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) is “setting itself up to fail” by proposing to give itself more work than it can cope with and asking for an “extraordinary high” budget increase of 19%, the Bar Council has warned.
The Bar Council said that while there was a need for staff to take time off at a “challenging time”, it was “alarming” to learn that 1,250 staff hours were lost at LeO in a single month by people taking special leave.
Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives (CILEx) said it was “yet to be convinced” that the priorities set out for LeO by its governing body, the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), would be “sustainable measures” in the long term.
CILEx and the Bar Council were responding to the OLC’s business plan and budget consultation for 2021-22, launched in November last year, which said the scheme was currently in an “unsustainable position”.
It said that, without an injection of extra cash, delays in handling complaints will continue to lengthen with LeO’s already faltering performance exacerbated by Covid-19.
The Bar Council said the business plan “simply appears to be too demanding and we are concerned that LeO is setting itself up to fail by proposing to give itself more work than it can reasonably cope with”.
Given the “sharp deterioration” in service levels at LeO last year and the ongoing impact of Covid-19, the Bar Council said LeO’s focus should be “first and foremost” on priority 1 in the business plan – maintaining stable operational delivery and reducing waiting times at pre-assessment.
Action on priority 2 – developing innovative ways to deliver the service more efficiently and to keep pace with the evolving legal sector and consumer expectations – should be delayed, although the Bar Council supported its objectives.
“Continuing to work on new approaches that have the potential to deliver efficiencies are to be welcomed, particularly where they have the potential to lower the cost of regulation.
“However, new technology needs to be considered in detail and trialled before any investment is made in it.”
Priority 3 – increasing the impact of casework, for example by providing “learning opportunities for barristers and chambers’ professionals to improve complaints handling processes” – was important but should take “lower precedence” than priority 1.
On the budget, an increase of 19% was an “extraordinarily high increase, particularly when examined against the financial stresses that the pandemic has placed on the legal profession”.
The Bar Council suggested that some of the OLC’s reserves could be used to fund LeO’s activities. While it is recognised that the OLC has more reserves than it needs, the Ministry of Justice has yet to allow it to release them.
“We do not think there should be any budget increase until the budget year 2022/23 at the earliest,” the Bar Council said.
CILEx said the pandemic meant that “many practitioners and firms are now at risk of closing their doors at a time where public demand for legal services is dramatically increasing”.
Justifying budget increases at this time would depend on how well “transformational change” could produce more efficient and effective complaints handling.
While priority 2 came closest to such change, CILEx said there was limited information on the inefficiencies that the innovations would be looking to address.
Despite having the “most potential to revitalise LeO”, priority 2 was allocated the lowest expenditure, only £150,000.
“No further details were provided” on the £3.86m sought for ‘corporate functions, transformation and business support’.
CILEx added it was concerned that the proposed increase to LeO’s budget would be followed by “escalating costs for the next few years”.
Given that the impact of the pandemic on the profession would be felt for “years to come”, it was “paramount” that there should be “clarification and transparency” on the level of financial contributions required.