One in four complaints to Legal Ombudsman outside new time limits

Time limits: LeO proactively assessing whether to exercise discretion for now

More than a quarter (27%) of complaints made to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) are outside the new time limits introduced at the beginning of April, it has emerged.

LeO described the process it used to decide whether to investigate these complaints as “highly time and resource intensive” and said it was taking “around two months”.

Radical changes were introduced to LeO’s rules on 1 April 2023. The time limit for complaining was cut from six years to one year, and there was a requirement to show “significant loss”.

Complaints could also be dismissed where there were no reasonable prospects of success or there had been unreasonable delay in bringing them.

But LeO also expanded its discretion to accept out-of-time (OOT) complaints from where there were ‘exceptional circumstances’ to what was ‘fair and reasonable in the circumstances’.

In a board paper for last month’s meeting of its governing body, the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), LeO said that more than a quarter of complaints (27%) generated by its ‘robotic process automation’ system were out of time, compared to only 4% under the old regime.

However, while previously consumers had to ask for an OOT complaint to be considered, during this initial period LeO is proactively assessing whether to exercise its discretion, a process taking around two months.

So far, LeO has decided to investigate 75% of OOT complaints, mainly on the basis that the complaint would have been valid under the old rules. There was a “justifiable delay” in 10% of cases.

LeO said predicted in advance of the reform that up to 30% of complainants could be affected by the new time limits.

The process for considering discretion was “highly time and resource intensive”, which “had an impact on the speed with which new cases can be processed and will have some, as yet unquantifiable impact” on complaints’ trajectories.

“As we handle more such cases we will better understand those implications but also be able to put measures in place to mitigate any negative impacts.

“As we have not seen the other new rules being applied in any great numbers, if at all, it is impossible to say whether the original assumptions about their likely impacts were realistic.”

The paper went on: “As the months progress and awareness of the new scheme rules embeds with the sector and consumers of legal services, we envisage that the number of files where discretion is required will reduce.

“Further, as time progresses, the circumstances in which it will be fair and reasonable to exercise discretion may change, which again could reduce the number of instances where a discretion decision is required or where discretion is granted.

“However, it is currently too early to say when or indeed if this will happen and what the implications will be on customer experience or levels of demand.”

When LeO refuses to use its discretion to investigate complaints, consumers can apply to an ombudsman for a review. Law firms can also challenge discretion decisions.

The board paper advised that although the rules had been “successfully implemented”, given the “relatively short time” since their introduction, conclusions should be “treated with a degree of caution”.

Approving the new rules in July last year, the Legal Services Board said it was “satisfied that the OLC has considered properly how it will mitigate adverse impacts on consumers through the appropriate use of discretion”.

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