More than half of all legal providers are failing to meet requirements to provide clients with clear information on their complaints procedure – according to research from the Legal Services Board (LSB) – which also shows that almost 70% of complaints against lawyers are upheld.
The YouGov poll of 1,275 people who had been dissatisfied with the legal service they received found that 57% were never told about their provider’s complaints procedure, and of those who were, only 47% found the procedure easy to understand.
Just 13% of people were told about the complaints procedure on engagement, and 8% about the Legal Ombudsman.
The findings said there is a “clear gap” between what is expected to happen under the complaints signposting requirements introduced by the LSB in October 2010 “and what is actually happening”.
However, there was evidence that where people did complain, there had been improvements in the way law firms dealt with complaints since October.
While the majority of dissatisfied clients do not complain about their initial issue with the legal services, “too many of those who do complain throw in the towel when they remain dissatisfied with the outcome of the in-house complaints procedure”, said LSB chief executive Chris Kenny.
“Whatever the reason for dissatisfied clients not pursuing complaints, it is clear that this status quo is not acceptable.”
The LSB said it expects approved regulators to build on this study, both with their own consumer research and through communication, supervision and enforcement action.
The results demonstrated strongly the link between knowledge of procedure and likelihood of making a complaint. Out of the two-thirds of respondents who did not complain, 82% were not told about the in-house complaints procedure at engagement, compared to just 24% of those who did make a complaint.
Despite the option of going to the Legal Ombudsman and a decent awareness of the body (65% of people said they had heard of it), 70% of respondents chose not take their matter to the ombudsman, with almost half (45%) saying the reason was they were fed up with the whole process and let it go.
Worrying for lawyers, client gripes were with merit in the large majority of cases. Some 61% of respondents said their complaints were either upheld in full or part by the law firm, while just 21% of cases were rejected. For those cases that went to the ombudsman, 69% were upheld in full or part with 29% rejected.
The LSB flagged up particular concerns over evidence that 16% of consumers had been charged for making a complaint. “The LSB regards this as totally unacceptable, and expects approved regulators to take firm action in all cases where it is proven,” said Mr Kenny.
Dr Dianne Hayter, chairwoman of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, described charging for complaints as “truly shameful”. She added: “I can think of no other service industry where businesses would try this on.”
She added: “It is very worrying that the vast majority of lawyers are ignoring rules requiring them to tell clients how they should complain. The profession’s regulators need to send a clear signal that this isn’t good enough.”