The Legal Services Board (LSB) has rejected a code of conduct for complainants proposed by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) for the probate practices it regulates.
Approving other rules on discipline put forward by the ICAEW, the LSB said the code of conduct would have had a “chilling effect on complaints”.
The LSB said the changes proposed by the ICAEW to its disciplinary bye-laws were “likely to act as a disincentive for complainants seeking to engage with a complaints process” and were neither “proportionate nor targeted”.
The LSB said it could not find another example of an approved regulator for legal services imposing a code of conduct on complainants, although some had produced guidance for the public.
The code said complaints must:
- Act courteously towards ICAEW staff and not act in an abusive, threatening or intimidating manner;
- Respond to correspondence and requests for information in a timely manner;
- Articulate their concerns clearly and succinctly;
- Not make excessive demands on the time/resources of professional conduct department (PCD) staff through lengthy and/or overly frequent correspondence/telephone calls that provide little or no new information/evidence;
- Not make complaints about case managers or demand the escalation of your concerns to senior managers without good cause;
- Not raise vexatious complaints; and
- Not raise repetitive complaints.
The ICAEW had given “the impression” that because the proposed changes to its bye-laws had been approved by the Privy Council in October 2019, following prior assessment by the Financial Reporting Council, they should be “more or less automatically” approved by the LSB.
However, the LSB said its refusal criteria did not include “the views that may have been taken by other unrelated bodies” nor did they permit the LSB to “cede its statutory responsibilities to third parties”.
The Financial Reporting Council considered the code under a “separate and very different framework” and drew its conclusions accordingly.
“The introduction of obligations, potentially deterring complainants from engaging in the complaints process − both due to its placement within the disciplinary framework and its language and tone – is neither proportionate nor targeted.
“This is particularly in light of the relatively small number of discourteous or vexatious complaints the ICAEW’s PCD actually receives.
“It is also inconsistent with consumer and public interest to seek to codify the sort of material that other regulators and bodies would usually publish as guidance for consumers/complainants.”
The LSB said the drafting of the code of conduct for complainants “sets the bar very high”.
The oversight regulator said the language of the code may “make it difficult for some vulnerable consumers to be able to make complaints at all”.
The ICAEW “may have benefited from engaging directly with consumers” when developing the code, the oversight regulator suggested.
The LSB said it had been told by the ICAEW that it had been dealing with “a small but increasing number of complainants whose actions were causing distress to staff and, in some cases, were delaying the progress of other casework”.
Setting out behavioural expectations of complainants, it said, would help protect the wellbeing of staff, mitigate the risk of claims being made by staff and “ensure that resources were used effectively to investigate only complaints of substance and merit”.
The LSB approved amendments to the ICAEW’s bye-laws relating to the liability for disciplinary action, the introduction of a fast-track process for certain serious criminal convictions, the introduction of settlement and interim orders and the power to reconsider complaints.
A spokeswoman for the ICAEW said: “While we are pleased that the LSB approved the rest of our application, we are naturally disappointed at the rejection of changes our regulatory board wished to make to help protect our staff from vexatious and abusive complainants, all of which were approved by other oversight regulators and the Privy Council.”