The outgoing Legal Services Ombudsman (LSO), Zahida Manzoor, is to hand over an estimated 600 cases awaiting investigation when her office closes at the beginning of next month, far more than previously thought.
Amid growing concerns about the complaints backlog, as revealed by Legal Futures, Ms Manzoor’s “final stakeholder letter” – a report covering the period 1 April 2010 to 31 January 2011 – blamed the high caseload on a 4% increase in casework, against a backdrop of diminishing numbers of trained staff in the run-up to closure.
Entitled A successful conclusion and a strong legacy for the future, she said: “It is usual for there to be work in progress at the end of a financial year. There has been no reduction in incoming work to [the LSO] during the period reported.”
Ms Manzoor praised her staff for having dealt with more cases in 2010/11 compared to the same period a year earlier– 1,411 reports issued as against 1,315 – although turnaround time rose from nearly three to four months. “This has been achieved despite permanent staff taking maternity, annual and sick leave,” she added.
Staff numbers as at 31 January 2011 were 20% down on the same date five years previously.
In an attempt to put the 600-case backlog into context, Ms Manzoor said work in progress when she took on the role in 2002 was 886, and 458 at 31 March 2010. She also pointed out that in 1991, when the LSO’s office was created, it had inherited 600 cases from the lay observer.
The backlog will be dealt with by an acting LSO, John Norton, one of the ombudsmen at the Legal Ombudsman service’s Birmingham office. He will also have to deal with any complaints not completed by the approved regulators when they close down shortly.
The LSO dealt with complainants who were unhappy with how the Legal Complaints Service (LCS) and the other legal complaints bodies handled their cases. They have three months to complain to the LSO. The LCS is working through its final 200 cases and shuts down at the end of next month.
Ms Manzoor said the overall picture was “a successful conclusion”. She continued: “I consider the closure of [the office of the LSO] has gone extremely well whilst maintaining significant casework output, consistency in decision making, supporting the Ministry of Justice and the new acting LSO.”
She added that in the 20 years the LSO’s office had been in existence had led to “significant improvements” to the quality of service delivery to consumers of legal services, leaving “a strong foundation for the future of complaint handling that should not be lost”.
However, she argued that there remains a need for an independent assessor to review how complaints about the conduct of lawyers – which are not covered by the ombudsman scheme – are handled by the frontline regulators.