A proposal by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) to cut the time limit for consumers to bring a complaint from six years to one “goes too far”, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) has argued.
However, other legal regulators were more positive about LeO’s plans for rule changes to help reduce the size of its backlog, particularly the Law Society which has called for “radical action” to tackle the issue.
LeO’s governing body, the Office for Legal Complaints, launched a consultation in February on a package of rule changes aimed at cutting the backlog.
It included a cut in the time available to consumers to make a complaint from six years from the act or omission or three years from the date of awareness, to only one year from both dates, whichever was later.
In its consultation response, the BSB predicted that the change would increase the number of inquiries it received, as well as the proportion where it took no action, since the regulator dealt with complaints about conduct and not service.
The BSB said this may leave consumers dissatisfied: “For any consumers who are unable to bring a case to the LeO, and who understand that raising a case with the BSB will not result in them receiving redress, there is no potential source of recourse but the courts.
“Any potential increase in court cases would undermine the purpose of an ombudsman scheme for legal services.”
The BSB said the proposed reduction “goes too far” and there should be a “more generous time limit”, which enabled consumers to access redress without running the risk of being ruled out of scope because of delays.
The Legal Services Consumer Panel described the cut in the time limit as “very significant” and said it should “only be made based on proper research and analysis of the impact on consumers”.
LeO should be able to demonstrate that the “net impact on consumers is positive” – which “should not be too difficult” given the detrimental impact of the current delays – “but it should not be presumed, on the basis of vague statements about earlier feedback”.
While there may be a “good case for a significant reduction” in the time limit the panel said more evidence was needed to justify a limit of one year.
The Council for Licensed Conveyancers called for a “cost-benefit analysis and impact assessment on moving the limit to 12, 18 and 24 months”, to include lessons from other ombudsman schemes. The Law Society and Bar Council supported cutting the time limit to one year.
Other changes proposed by LeO received a more positive response.
LeO is proposing a new rule to enable an ombudsman to exercise their discretion to dismiss a complaint, if specific criteria were met, without the need to accept the case for investigation.
The Bar Council described this as “beneficial”, saying the reforms “should be aiming towards filtering out disproportionate or meritless/frivolous complaints earlier which would allow resources to be deployed on serious and substantial complaints”.
While supporting other changes, the consumer panel opposed adding the word ‘significant’ to the existing rule allowing an ombudsman to dismiss a complaint where satisfied that the complainant has not suffered any financial loss, distress, inconvenience, or other detriment.
“We believe this change risks sending the wrong message to providers, damaging consumer confidence in the complaint process, and weakening the culture of complaint handing in the legal services sector.”
The Law Society said it was pleased that several of the changes reflected reforms it had backed, including a discretion for LeO to reject a complaint where the law firm involved had made a “reasonable offer”.