The board of the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has put off until spring 2012 the decision on whether to name law firms on the receiving end of complaints, a move condemned by the Legal Services Consumer Panel.
Publishing its response to the discussion paper it issued  six months ago, LeO said it plans to track certain types of complaints and law firms over the next nine months, and use this information to make a final decision on naming firms next March or April.
In the meantime LeO will this summer start publishing anonymised summaries of all ombudsman decisions.
It has issued a fresh consultation today on its proposed approach to collecting and using data over the next nine months, ahead of making the final decision. The consultation says that if it does decide to publish, it is likely the first stage would be to identify firms or lawyers “where we felt it was in the public interest to do so… We would want to identify law firms rather than individual lawyers as far as this is possible”.
Explaining the decision to proceed cautiously, the consultation says: “Whilst there is strong support among consumers for us publishing information identifying individual law firms, there are also many concerns about this approach expressed by the legal profession.
“Although in our view some of these concerns may be overstated, we do think there is a need to obtain more substantial data in some of these areas, in particular to test out the numbers and types of individual firms that would be affected by a policy of identification.
“This will allow us to consider whether there might be an impact on particular fields of law or types of firms, and in turn whether this could result in reduced access to legal advice for some consumers. By allowing time to track our data, we will be able to make a more informed decision about our approach to identification based on clear evidence.”
Describing the decision as “excessively cautious and consumer-unfriendly”, consumer panel chairwoman Dr Dianne Hayter said it will be “a huge let down” for clients and “completely flies in the face of government policy to empower citizens by opening up data on provider performance”.
She said the only winners from the announcement are “the small minority of firms that persistently fail consumers”.
Dr Hayter argued: “In its first big policy test, the Legal Ombudsman has fallen for spurious objections from the legal profession for which they have provided no evidence. This decision puts second the needs of consumers who depend on legal advice at critical life moments, but struggle to tell a good lawyer from a bad one.”