The publication of complaints data will be “imperfect”, the Chief Legal Ombudsman has admitted, but it is better than publishing nothing at all and is emphatically not about naming and shaming lawyers.
Writing on the Legal Ombudsman’s (LeO) website, Adam Sampson said openness was one of the service’s five core values and that while he would like to include more contextual information about firms that are named – such as their areas of work and number of clients – the regulators are not collecting that kind of data.
“So we know the process will be imperfect. But it is a start. And as the legal services market transforms – as we see the beginnings of the price comparison websites and feedback mechanisms which have developed in other sectors – the sorts of data we are producing will become more meaningful and more significant.
“Given the choice between making an imperfect, transparent start or keeping information secret, our commitment to our values means that there really was only ever one answer.”
Mr Sampson bemoaned media coverage that suggested the policy was about ‘naming and shaming’ rather than being “merely one of transparency and building an informed consumer base”.
He said: “It is true that part of the policy will do just that [name and shame]. We will reserve the right once in a while – and on our tracking over the last few months, this will be relatively rare – to single out firms and individuals who we find have intentionally and seriously transgressed or who consistently provide inadequate levels of service.”
However, he said this “couldn’t be further from the truth” for the other limb of the policy – the publication of statistical data giving the names of those involved in all ombudsman decisions.
Mr Sampson said that while he had to recognise “real disquiet among some lawyers”, it is also “easy to be seduced by the power of the legal lobby into imagining that the argument is simple and one-sided”. In fact, the voice of consumer organisations – such as the Legal Services Consumer Panel and Which? – “may be far quieter, but it is equally insistent”.
He added that LeO had also received a “strong steer” from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills “to the effect that there was an expectation on the part of government that bodies like ours, who had information about how markets were operating, were expected to put as much information as possible in the public domain”.
LeO had planned to publish the data last month, but has delayed it to ensure its accuracy. When it finally does publish, it will be a list of 900 ombudsman decisions with the name of the lawyer or firm involved, the area of law, the date of the decision, whether any remedy was ordered, the nature and amount of that remedy, and the reason for the complaint.
Mr Sampson said: “The key thing here is that, except in the case of our rare exemplar cases, we are not in the business of making value judgements. What we are publishing is factual data, not opinion. What we are trying to do is give objective information about the way the market is operating, rather than to name and shame.”