The presumptive new chair of the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) – the board of the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) – has suggested that it should not have to wait for complaints before taking action.
Elisabeth Davies was quizzed about her suitability for the role yesterday by MPs on the justice select committee, which is required to undertake pre-appointment scrutiny of the chair.
The Legal Services Board last week named the former chair of its consumer panel as its preferred candidate for the role, and she has also been approved by the Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland.
During the session, Ms Davies stressed her belief in the “dual role” of ombudsman schemes – dealing with individual complaints and raising standards more generally.
She questioned whether consumers of unregulated legal services providers should in future be able to complain to LeO and also talked about the service using ‘own initiative’ powers to deal with ‘silent sufferers’ – clients who are unhappy with their lawyer’s service but decide not to complain.
She said research indicated that there was a higher level of these in law (around 35%) than other sectors (25%).
Rather than needing somebody to complain in order to trigger, for example, a thematic review on a particular problem in the profession, she said, “should you have own-initiative powers so you could potentially not have to wait for that complaint and instead identify the issue as the ombudsman and move forward on that basis?”
Ms Davies said her priorities included “building and rebuilding confidence in LeO” – whose performance continues to be uneven and which she described as being in the middle of its “improvement journey”.
She would also place a greater focus on monitoring the quality, rather than timeliness, of decision-making, ensuring that budget increases were justified, and building “the confidence and capability of staff”.
On the budget, she said she was “very aware” that both the Law Society and Bar Council have been very critical of the rise in budget put forward in the OLC’s recent draft business plan.
She indicated that she wanted to move away from the “very blunt” measure of cost per case currently used by LeO – dividing its income by the number of complaints – to one that that recognised the advice the ombudsman provided and the wider systemic improvement it drove, such as through peer reviews or benchmarking.
There was, Ms Davies observed, “an age-old tension in ombudsman schemes about how you share resources between complaint handling and systemic improvements”.
She stressed, however, that she “knows, values and respects the legal services sector and the contribution that it makes to access to justice”.
With her background as chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel and continuing roles in the law – including as a member of the Civil Justice Council – Ms Davies told MPs that “for me this is a very specific match… I’m not a generalist looking for their next non-executive appointment. This is very much about continuing [my] focus on access to justice”.
Though the role was advertised for at least 60 days of work a year, she said she expected to dedicate two days a week to it, and said she was sure she could combine it with her other main roles as he senior independent director of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman and chair of the appointments committee at the General Pharmaceutical Council.
She added that she will soon publish academic research on links between complainant satisfaction and impartiality in ombudsman schemes.
Her political declaration was that she stood as a Labour candidate for election as a local councillor, but said she stopped all political activity when became chair of consumer panel in 2011.
The committee will now draft a report with its views about her suitability for the post.