Stronger rules on how clients are informed about their right to complain, and ensuring verbal expressions of dissatisfaction are treated as complaints, are set to be introduced next year.
The Legal Services Board (LSB) may also force law firms to offer redress to clients who have not complained where they have suffered the same issue as clients who have.
Using powers in the Legal Services Act 2007, the LSB is to beef up the regulatory arrangements it expects frontline regulators to have in place for lawyers’ complaints procedures, along with its accompanying guidance.
A paper that went to the meeting of the oversight regulator’s board last week said the Legal Ombudsman found that first-tier complaints handling – ie, by legal services providers – was inadequate in nearly a quarter of the cases it investigated.
Moreover, around a quarter of complaints received by the ombudsman were classified as premature – that is, submitted before the complainant had exhausted the first-tier process.
“Research shows that consumers can find it difficult to find information about complaints, and/or are dissuaded from doing so for other reasons,” the board was told.
While data indicated that the proportion of ‘silent sufferers’ has shrunk, this group was still “sizeable” – a quarter of former clients who took part in the most recent Legal Services Consumer Panel tracker survey were identified as those who were dissatisfied with their lawyer but decided not to complain.
The ongoing LSB review is focusing on four issues. First, the current requirements state that clients must be notified in writing of their right to make a first-tier complaint, and how and when they can do this. But they are largely silent on how this is achieved
The LSB said: “There is, however, a range of evidence which indicates that signposting consumers at the start of the process is insufficient, and that there seems to be a difference between the information that is communicated to clients and what they actually ‘hear’ – for example, if the information about how to complain is hidden within a lengthy client-care letter.”
The paper raised the prospect of the revised rules prescribing how signposting was done, as well as greater standardisation, an approach suggested just last week by the consumer panel.
Second, the reluctance of some groups of consumers to complain suggested the need to change client perceptions of the complaints process and, in doing so, “be alive to the power imbalance (real or perceived) between legal services providers and clients”.
According to an accompanying literature review by the LSB, an archetypal silent sufferer was “someone older in age and of lower socio-economic status and education, who may be less likely to self-report dissatisfaction and lack confidence to complain”.
It went on “They view complaining as carrying high cost relative to benefit, may see the provider as aloof or elitist, and hold low loyalty to maintaining a working relationship.”
The review highlighted the need for increased consumer awareness of the complaints process, greater understanding of the magnitude of issues that constituted dissatisfaction, more openness on the part of providers to welcome complaints, and “more accessible routes for consumers to seek redress”.
Third, the LSB said it may look to strengthen the provisions on learning lessons from complaints and in particular follow the example of financial services regulation in requiring firms “to identify whether the root cause of complaints could have affected consumers who have not complained, and potentially offer redress to these consumers”.
Fourth was how the term ‘complaint’ was defined and interpreted. “The requirements and guidance state that a complaint can be ‘an oral or written expression of dissatisfaction’. However, in practice, not all firms categorise verbal expressions of dissatisfaction as complaints.
“There may be more work to be done here on how the term ‘complaint’ should be defined and interpreted, to support the adoption of a broad definition.”
Revised requirements and guidance are due to be presented to the board in early 2023, following which a consultation is likely.