The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) could start publishing its full decisions, as well as annual reviews of the most complained-about lawyers and firms, under plans to improve the quality of information it makes available.
Longer term, it also wants to publish details of complaints that it resolves short of a formal ombudsman decision.
This would require a change to the “unnecessarily restrictive” Legal Services Act 2007, it said in a consultation paper issued this week.
The complaints handler said it wanted to contribute to the push for greater transparency started by the Competition and Markets Authority, which has seen price transparency imposed in certain areas of law, but a lack of quality markers to go alongside that.
“As LeO assesses the quality of the service provided to a consumer, we believe that our data could help to fill the current gap,” it said, adding that this would help consumers to make decisions on choosing a provider based on more than just price.
At the moment, LeO publishes the names of all service providers that have been involved in complaints resolved by an ombudsman decision on a rolling 12-month basis, in a database that is updated every quarter.
This includes brief details about the types of complaints, remedies ordered, whether there was evidence of poor service and whether the first-tier complaints handling was reasonable.
The consultation asks whether LeO should instead start to publish full details of its final decisions against lawyers, with the client’s details removed.
The service said this was “common practice” in the ombudsman sector, and the Financial Ombudsman and Pensions Ombudsman have done it for years.
“Undertaking full publication would have significant resource implications for us, as it would require a tailored IT solution, and several staff posts dedicated to adapting and anonymising decisions to make them suitable for publication.
“At a time where operational resource is at a premium, aiming for this in the short term is not a realistic goal.
“Nevertheless, we do see this as the end goal of improving LeO’s transparency, and therefore believe that it would be useful to gauge opinion and identify risks and challenges before we begin work on it.”
Annual reviews “about a particular provider’s performance over the year”, would follow the example of other schemes like the Financial Ombudsman Service.
“We will not produce these for all service providers in our jurisdiction. We would instead look to write annual reviews for a set percentage of service providers (based on a specific selection criteria, likely to be firms with the highest complaint volumes) at the end of a given year, on the basis of complaint volumes received, how we resolved their complaint, whether we found reasonable service, and the most common complaint types raised about them.
“We believe this could be of great interest to consumers, service providers, regulators, policy-makers and journalists.”
However, LeO said it was constrained by section 150 of the 2007 Act, which only allowed it to publish details of decisions that reached the stage of an ombudsman’s decision.
“We would look to produce a much more detail report to be sent directly to providers which could support their own learning process, and an edited version which could be published on our website for consumers to read,” it said.
A further proposal was to add extra filtering options for complaints data on its website, so users could view data by complaint type or remedy, as well as service provider or area of law.
LeO said that, longer term, it would like to amend section 150 so that it could include details of all complaints – however resolved – that reach its offices in Birmingham.
It said: “We do not believe that there is a significant distinction between complaints that are resolved more informally and those that receive an ombudsman’s final decision.
“The raw numbers of complaints we investigate about a given firm is indicative of dissatisfaction on the part of consumers and we believe it should therefore be reflected in the data we publish.
“It should not need to reach an advanced stage for this to matter. In our view, the Legal Services Act is unnecessarily restrictive on this point, and it prevents us from sharing data that could be useful to many stakeholders in the market.”
Another longer-term goal was to include contextual information indicating the size of firms to assist consumers in determining whether the number of complaints about a firm was significant.
The consultation closes on 9 December.