The Legal Services Board (LSB) has, after “very extensive debate”, backed a cut in the time limit for complaining to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) from six years to only one year.
LeO’s governing body, the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) has estimated that 30-40% of complaints are currently made after a year.
The LSB also agreed that complaints should be dismissed where has been no “significant loss” or where there has been “undue delay” in complaining.
The OLC consulted on a series of changes to its scheme rules earlier this year, saying they would provide the flexibility to resolve cases more quickly, against a background of complaints piling up at the start of the process.
Another change would give LeO discretion to dismiss or discontinue a complaint if they considered it would not be a proportionate use of the ombudsman’s time to investigate the complaint.
Further, while currently any party unhappy with the findings of an investigation can ask for an ombudsman to make a final determination, in future this would be limited to where the disagreement was either based on new facts or evidence which may have a bearing on the investigator’s findings, or it would be fair and reasonable to issue a determination.
In a paper for last week’s LSB board meeting, which approved the changes, the oversight regulator said the OLC aimed to “reduce the wait time and improve the experience of consumers seeking redress”.
The OLC said that, by investigating more cases and collecting better data, LeO would have “greater insight into systemic issues” facing the legal profession.
However, the LSB acknowledged the change could be “detrimental” to some consumers, which had been raised as a concern by the Legal Services Consumer Panel.
The existing rule requires complaints to be brought within six years of the act or omission or three years from the date the complainant should reasonably have known there was cause for complaint. The new rule would limit the time for complaining to one year in either event.
LeO would be able to extend the time limits where it would be “fair and reasonable” to do so, rather than just in “exceptional circumstances”.
There would also be a discretion to consider a complaint from someone who had not suffered significant loss, distress or inconvenience.
Having “interrogated” the changes to the OLC scheme rules, the LSB said it was “satisfied that the OLC has considered properly how it will mitigate adverse impacts on consumers through the appropriate use of discretion, which we expect to be applied consistently”.
The OLC estimated that 30-40% of complaints were currently brought after a year, 20-30% after 18 months and 15-20% after 24 months.
The LSB commented: “We expect the change to drive the behaviour of complainants to complain earlier, rather than to significantly reduce the case load of the Legal Ombudsman. We will closely monitor information the OLC shares with us on the impact of this change.”
On the ‘significance’ test, the LSB said “a number of” other ombudsman schemes “specifically state that they reserved the right to dismiss cases if they were not satisfied or persuaded that the customer had suffered a significant impact/detriment”.
It added: “We expect the OLC to be transparent in its publications on the data gathered through its tracking and monitoring work and would expect the OLC to set out a clear rationale for the timescale for its comprehensive review of all the proposed changes.”
In her blog on the meeting, LSB chair Dr Helen Phillips said: “Having an effective system for complaining when legal services go wrong is central to public trust and consumer confidence.”
Dr Phillips said that after a “very extensive debate” on the risks of moving to a one-year time limit the LSB board “consented to the proposal, and indeed the whole package, but asked for robust monitoring and evaluation to be put in place”.