Panel warns on impact of “seismic” change to complaint time-limits

Chambers: Policy could be reversed

The “seismic shift” in time limits to complain to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) will require close monitoring to ensure that consumers do not lose out, the chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP) has said.

Sarah Chambers said the policy should be modified or even reversed if they did.

Last month, the Legal Services Board approved a cut in the time limit for complaining to LeO from six years to only one, although chair Dr Helen Phillips said this followed a “very extensive debate” on the risks. The board asked for “robust monitoring and evaluation to be put in place”.

The consumer panel told LeO during the consultation process that it needed to produce more evidence to justify such a drastic reduction but the reform went ahead anyway.

Writing on the panel’s website, Ms Chambers said monitoring and evaluation could provide “early intelligence” of the impact of the change, “with the possibility of modifying or even reversing the policy if need be”.

However, she observed that monitoring and evaluation “has not always been a strength” of the legal sector.

She said the LSCP had “heard and read concerns about the decision to give consent to this significant reduction in time limit, but also accept that the backlog and performance necessitated radical intervention”.

She went on: “We stand by our assessment that the time limit deserved detailed and transparent exposition of LeO’s existing data about the volume of complaints made within one, two or three years of the service complained about.

“We also wanted to see an articulation of areas other than conveyancing, where impacts may only become apparent after a delay, with an analysis of how different types of consumers might be affected.”

Ms Chambers said one “particular concern” was the discretion left to LeO to decide when the time period began.

“Given the difficulty of knowing when issues such as problems with the conveyance of a property really come to light, it is vital that any benefit of the doubt should be decided to the benefit of the consumer.

“The way in which LeO makes such decisions will be an important point to look at when evaluating the new policy.”

Elisabeth Davies, chair of Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), LeO’s governing body, said they would be working to “ensure that the monitoring framework developed adequately identifies the differential impacts” of the changes to LeO’s rules might have on those with a complaint.

She made the comment in an update on the first quarter of 2022/23, which provided an upbeat assessment of the organisation’s progress.

Ms Davies said the backlog of complaints sitting in the pre-assessment pool stood at 5,154, against a business plan forecast of 5,568, meaning “less people waiting for a complaint to be investigated”.

The first quarter of the year had also seen a case closure rate of nearly 97% of the business plan target, approaching double the number of closures in the same quarter last year.

Ms Davies said the OLC was pleased to see the improvement but knew that the work was not complete and LeO “must continue to deliver improvements to further drive down inefficiencies and reduce its backlog”.

“As ever, there is no complacency about the challenges ahead. However, there are clear and consistent signs that LeO is on the path to a sustained and sustainable level of good performance and quality service – one which meets the needs and expectations of both users and providers of legal services.”

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