There are signs that lawyers are getting better at handling complaints but also still failing to signpost their clients to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), the chief ombudsman has said.
Adam Sampson said both of these factors could help explain why complaint volumes are lower than had been planned for when LeO was set up.
LeO’s initial operating assumption was that it would receive 165,000 contacts in the first year, which would translate into 14,000 cases; the reality of the first year, however, was around half of these numbers – although a far higher proportion than expected have gone to a formal ombudsman’s decision.
The positive indication comes from the fact that LeO is waiving the case fee more than had been originally expected. LeO can waive the £400 fee if the lawyer has co-operated with LeO and done all they could do resolve the complaint at the first tier.
He said: “We shouldn’t get carried away with this – these are only indicative data after all – but there may be some grounds for concluding that one of the reasons why we’re seeing less business is that lawyers are doing better at handling complaints at the first tier.”
At the same time, however, customer satisfaction surveys in the last six months show that only 34.5% of respondents who had had their complaint investigated by LeO had been made aware of the service by their lawyer. And in fewer cases still had they been signposted by their lawyer; more frequently, even if they were told about LeO by the lawyer, they used a web search to find the details.
“Of course, again these are only early indications. But in contrast with the hints that first-tier complaint handling is better, this second stat hints there may be a real signposting problem, creating a potential barrier to legal services customers accessing redress.”
To address this, Mr Sampson said LeO is pushing on with an awareness-raising campaign aimed at both lawyers and consumers, “and we’re encouraging the regulators and professional bodies to look at this issue”.
He added: “But really, it is up to the profession to decide what actually happens; it is lawyer, rather than consumer behaviour, which determines our workload.”
He said other factors in the lower numbers could include the flood of coal health cases into the Legal Complaints Service late in its life, and the recession leading to a 50% drop in conveyancing related complaints.
At the same time, Mr Sampson said that “those of us who have been in the ombudsman game long enough know that there is no direct correlation between numbers of transactions in the market and numbers of complaints”.