Lawyers are facing beefed-up rules on dealing with complaints, and the prospect of how quickly they handle them being made public, under proposals published yesterday.
The Legal Services Board (LSB) said it wanted to see “a step-change improvement in the resolution of first-tier complaints” – those that clients make to law firms.
Referrals on to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) are second-tier complaints.
“Our aim is to ensure that all legal service users (including ‘silent sufferers’) feel empowered to raise concerns if they are dissatisfied, knowing that these will be taken seriously and used to deliver better services,” it said.
The oversight regulator said it also aimed to “support regulators to foster a culture where legal professionals are receptive to, and learn from, complaints and feedback on their services”.
It issued a consultation on draft new statutory requirements and guidance which would direct the approach frontline regulators have to take in updating their complaints-handling rules.
The regulators will have a year to comply once the final version is published.
The LSB said a big improvement was necessary because the current system “is not currently meeting consumers’ expectations as well as it should”.
The consultation explained: “A sizeable proportion of legal service users are dissatisfied with the service they have received but do not raise this with their legal service provider (so-called ‘silent sufferers’).
“Recent research shows that legal service users can lack confidence that their complaints will be taken seriously and consider that making a complaint will be an arduous process; there is also evidence that information about how to make a complaint can be hard to find.”
LeO data suggested that a “substantial number of complainants are either unable, or unwilling, to see the first-tier process through to completion”.
The LSB said: “This raises further questions about whether complainants are confident that the process will be conducted properly and fairly by their legal service provider.”
It recorded that a “high number of complaints” were escalated to LeO, “many prematurely” because of how they were being handled – LeO finds first-tier complaints handling inadequate in around a quarter of cases it investigates.
The proposed requirements include, for the first time, that complaints procedures be published “prominently” and given both at the start and the end of a retainer.
Including them in the client-care letter “can be ineffective, as clients are unlikely to be thinking about making a complaint at this stage and complaints information can become ‘buried’ within these letters”, the LSB said.
“There is evidence that service users can perceive there to be a power imbalance between themselves and provider, which may act as a barrier to making a complaint.
“This could be mitigated by signposting people to third-party organisations that might be able to assist those wishing to make a complaint. The draft guidance now provides for the inclusion of information about third-party organisations who may be able to assist in this way.”
Other proposed changes include requiring the acknowledgement of a complaint within five working days (it may be automated), regular updates about progress and that firms consider giving all client-facing staff soft-skills training.
The draft guidance includes an expectation that regulators should “collect and publish data about the performance of authorised persons in resolving first-tier complaints within eight weeks, in order to ensure increased transparency about performance levels”. Eight weeks is how long lawyers have to deal with a complaint before the client can take it to LeO.
“We consider that adherence to this time limit is critical in ensuring the timely resolution of complaints and, in turn, in ensuring public confidence in the complaints process.
“We also consider that it is important for a wider understanding of the health of first-tier complaints that sector-wide information is available on how many complaints are responded to within eight weeks, and we note that transparency around this type of information is common in other sectors.”
The LSB said regulators should take into account the fact that it would not always be possible to resolve complaints within eight weeks for reasons outside of lawyers’ control.
Richard Orpin, director of regulation & policy at the LSB, said: “A fair, efficient and effective redress system is crucial to ensuring access to justice and safeguarding the public interest.
“Our proposals are designed to support a culture in which the sector responds positively and proactively to complaints, and embraces consumer feedback to learn lessons and raise standards. This will help increase public trust and confidence in the sector.”
The LSB added that, as a separate strand to its work, it was “building a coalition of stakeholders who share the objective of delivering the best possible redress system and raising industry standards. This coalition will work collectively to establish shared commitments for the sector, aligning with the aims of the consultation”.