The number of lawyers demanding an independent review of their treatment at the hands of the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has gone up, despite a decline in members of the public making a similar request.
The Independent Complaint Resolution Service (ICRS) – which reviews complaints that the SRA cannot resolve internally – said “aggrieved” lawyers included those believed they had been unfairly penalised for “minor infringements” of the rules.
“Others feel that they have not had a reasonable opportunity to put their case,” the ICRS said.
In its annual report for 2014 the ICRS found that while the overall volume of complaints referred to it by the regulator fell by 15% to 81, the percentage accounted for by complaints from solicitors grew – even though the majority still come from members of the public.
In all the SRA received 931 complaints, a 12% fall on 2013, with most dealt with internally, and the ICRS praised the quality of the replies the SRA sent to complainants, while noting that some remained confused by the process.
The ICRS said the cases it saw raised issues about “how some members of the legal profession feel they are treated by the authority and their confidence in the internal complaints process”.
The report found that, as in previous years, poor communication remained an issue. “This continues to be an area of concern to customers of the SRA, both members of the public as well as members of the legal profession.
“An analysis of the complaints reviewed in this period would indicate that issues of poor communication remain at the core of customer dissatisfaction. These issues of dissatisfaction result from delays in the time taken to respond to customers, and the content of telephone calls and emails.”
Members of the public who reported alleged misconduct by solicitors continued to be dissatisfied “at the lack of information provided to them” on investigations and outcomes.
On the positive side, the SRA continued to receive “very few” complaints of discrimination.
However, one case study involved a complaint from a sole practitioner that she had been threatened with disciplinary action for failing to submit diversity data.
“Ms D was a sole practitioner and had understood from previous conversations with SRA staff that she was exempt from the data collection exercise because she had already provided her own personal diversity data.
“She said that she felt that the threat of disciplinary action had been very heavy-handed and that she knew of other sole practitioners who had felt the same way.”
The ICRS said it appreciated why Ms D had felt this way, but recognised that the SRA was under a duty to collect the data and noted that the regulator had promised to improve its guidance for sole practitioners.
In another case, this time involving a member of the public, an application for a payment from the Compensation Fund, made in 2011 following an intervention and the closure of a law firm, was not dealt with until 2014.
A review by the ICRS found that the SRA had “consistently failed” to give the application sufficient priority and “each stage of the process had been painfully slow”.
The SRA complaints team apologised and made a “special payment” to the complainant, in recognition of “avoidable stress and inconvenience” he had suffered.
The regulator said that, following the complaints, it had implemented a “new approach to communication” and routinely provided complainants with information about the regulatory steps it might take and the outcome.
“This has been the biggest single source of dissatisfaction from consumers in previous years,” it added.