The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has warned that if its poor performance over the last few months continues, it could take more than a year to process even the simplest complaints.
LeO also cautioned that if “rapid and substantive changes” were pursued to the detriment of staff morale before the arrival of new leadership, the organisation may be “completely unable to recover”.
We reported recently  how Covid-19 has hit efforts to improve LeO’s performance and there are now 3,600 cases in the pre-assessment pool – complaints taken in but not allocated to an investigator – having been less than 2,000 last December.
A report to last month’s board meeting of LeO’s governing body, the Office for Legal Complaints, spelt out the longer-term impacts – it projected that the pool could contain 6,000 cases by the end of its financial year next March without improvements.
Head ombudsman Mariette Hughes wrote that, although operational performance was considered a “key priority” at the end of the last financial year, performance levels had “dropped further”.
She went on: “Unless improvements in delivery are made, the customer experience will continue to deteriorate.”
Should performance continue at the level of the first quarter of this financial year, the report said it would more than a year, 391 days, to process a ‘low’ complexity complaint which currently took only 128 days.
The time taken to deal with a medium complexity complaints would increase from 155 to 440 days, although the time taken to handle high complexity complaints would rise less dramatically, to 544 days, but that was because the current starting point is already very long – 506 days.
However, if by next month pre-Covid improvements could be reinstated, there would be 4,875 cases in the pre-assessment pool by the end of the financial year in March 2021, and simple complaints would take 324 days to process.
While cases that have had to be suspended during lockdown are starting to go live again – as lawyers return to their offices and can deal with them – this will have an impact on LeO being able to process new cases.
Staff morale has been a major problem. Ms Hughes said that, while some ground had been gained through LeO’s “flexibility during the pandemic”, the “situation remains extremely fragile”.
Rebecca Marsh, the chief ombudsman and chief executive, announced in June that she was leaving LeO to become Property Ombudsman, while Elisabeth Davies took over as the new chair of the OLC in March. She has made the appointment of a chief operating officer  a key part of her efforts to overhaul LeO’s performance.
Ms Hughes said “changes in the senior structure” were having an impact on staff.
“There is a real concern that the extensive changes in the senior structure, such as a new chief ombudsman and a new chief operating officer will bring significant change in direction for the Legal Ombudsman without consultation, and staff are nervous about what these changes may mean for them.
“In this context, this interim period before the arrival of new senior staff is critical. Whilst improvements should be sought where possible, rapid and substantive changes represent a significant risk, and should not be pursued to the detriment of improvements in staff morale and engagement.
“To do so may entirely derail the work of the People Plan, and may leave the organisation completely unable to recover.”
The report said caring responsibilities continued to affect the workload of LeO’s investigators and team leaders. In June, an average of 25% of LeO’s investigators claimed “some degree of special leave” as a result of caring responsibilities every week. This amounted to 1,250 lost hours in a month.
In a staff survey attached to the report, with a response rate of 65%, only 24% of LeO staff said they wanted to return to working from the office in Birmingham.
In a blog following the meeting, Ms Davies acknowledged that “current levels of performance are insufficient to keep pace with incoming demand, and they’re neither sustainable nor acceptable from either a complainant or a provider perspective”.
Addressing this needs to happen “in a staged way”, she explained.
“The first stage of improvements focuses on stabilisation of performance and immediate mitigations have already been put in place. The focus for Q2 is on supporting staff to improve performance…
“At the end of Q2, a number of next stage proposals will be considered which will allow us to achieve further improvements in performance. These include changing the model for handling low complexity cases to take an adjudication approach, and amending the quality and feedback model to require fewer checks for more experienced staff.”
She stressed that a final decision on whether to take these steps has not been made.