The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) is to focus on improving the quality of its decision making as its caseload falls from 8,000 this financial year to a predicted 7,400 in 2019-20.
But delays continue to dog the service, which is often called on to judge whether lawyers have dealt with complaints in a timely fashion.
Wanda Goldwag, chair of the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), which supervises LeO, described its performance in 2018-19 as “mixed” but predicted that LeO would achieve “consistent and sustainable performance” next year.
In a consultation on its business plan for 2019-2020, LeO forecast a slight fall in its budget, from £12.7m to £12.3m, with the average cost of handling each case rising from £1,578 to £1,663.
LeO warned that volume and unit cost estimates could change as a result of “external policy drivers”, such as the upcoming regulatory changes being introduced by the Solicitors Regulation Authority allowing solicitors to practise from unregulated firms.
LeO said the departure of its claims management jurisdiction to the Financial Ombudsman Service on 1 April 2019 would enable it to reduce overheads by sharing office space.
Once it had cleared the backlog of old cases, LeO said it would introduce “more stretching” targets on timeliness.
The latest performance indicators cited by OLC in an update to the Legal Services Board in October showed that LeO was well behind existing targets in the first months of the financial year, although it appeared that this was due mainly to ongoing problems cases lodged in its old case management system.
Only 11% cases were concluded within 90 days in April this year, 19% in May, 20% in June and 23% in July – as against a target of 26%. This summer the figures improved, with 32% recorded for August and 33% for September.
LeO failed to achieve anything like its target of 72% for cases closed within 180 days in the same period. The highest proportion was recorded for September, 51%, followed by 47% for August and 46% for April. The figure for July was only 29%.
However, the target of resolving 90% of cases within a year was achieved in every month from April to September.
Under the planned performance targets for next year, the target for resolving cases within 90 days would rise to 45%, within 180 days to 78% and within a year to 95%.
The initial figures from its new case management system, which came on stream in the spring, indicate that these are reachable, but at the moment the continuing problems at LeO meant that new cases were waiting two to three months just for assessment.
LeO has, however, launched an online assessment tool that enables consumers to check whether their complaint can be handled immediately, or by another organisation or is too early to be dealt with.
During test in November, over 3,000 people used it, of whom 500 realised that their complaint was outside of LeO’s jurisdiction and 350 learnt that they had to wait to give their service provider the opportunity to respond to the complaint first. A further 500 went on to access the full complaint form.
“LeO has made significant progress with its modernisation programme in 2018-19,” Ms Goldwag wrote in the draft plan.
“We expect to close this year having successfully implemented our business process, staffing model, IT, telephony, case management system, and estate rationalisation.”
Ms Goldwag said a “primary theme” of the 2019-20 business plan would be “the quality of our work”.
She went on: “In 2019-20, we will continue to develop our organisational capability through rapid, smaller-scale project delivery, and our focus will be on achieving the full benefits of the modernisation programme we’ve implemented.
“The foundations for sustainable future performance are in place.”
Speaking in October, Ms Goldwag said LeO was dealing with new complaints “within a couple of weeks” and was “grinding through” the backlog, which it hoped to clear by the end of March 2019, at which point LeO could look the profession in the eye again.