OFT and LSC join consumer groups in call to name lawyers over complaints

Out of proportion: just a tiny number of cases lead to complaints, says firm

The Office of Fair Trading and the Legal Services Commission have joined a host of consumer groups in calling on the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) to name lawyers over complaints, with the commission saying it has a “right” to such information.

Responses to LeO’s discussion paper on its publication policy show the profession united in opposition to the idea, with one law firm saying it is “rare” for a client to have a justifiable complaint, and another saying “the truth (at least in relation to decent firms) is that the vast majority of complaints are without any substantial merit”.

The OFT said publishing complaints “could be an important step to improving consumers’ ability to make informed choices based on the performance of legal services providers”. It said the data should be presented in a way “that facilitates making comparisons, based on performance”.

The OFT also said there needed to be “firm evidence” to support the theory that any detrimental effects of publishing were “sufficiently severe to justify withholding information helpful to consumer choice”.

The Legal Services Commission said failure to publish information would have a “detrimental impact upon major procurers of legal services such as the LSC and the Crown Prosecution Service”. It argued: “We believe that as a purchaser of services, we have a right to obtain detailed information, at the very least regarding successful complaints about the services that we fund, and overall figures regarding complaints arising from publicly funded work.”

Access to complaints data would help the commission target its investigative resources at contracted firms that may not be fulfilling the requirement under the Specialist Quality Mark to have an effective complaints system in place, the response continued. “A significant benefit for the LSC of access to complaints information is that we could use the information to inform contract management, or possibly future tender processes.”

The LSC added that the Crown Prosecution Service would probably “benefit from information that may be relevant to its selection of advocates”.

Several consumer groups responded to the consultation, all in support of naming lawyers: the Legal Services Consumer Panel (see end of linked story), Consumer Focus, Which? and the National Consumer Federation.

While its starting point was that all names (at least of firms) should be published, Which? acknowledged how complaints data could be mis-used by the media and others. “So an alternative route is for LeO to consider if there is merit in the first instance to restricting publication of the name to certain categories or to certain firms with the worst complaints records,” it said.

As well as various legal bodies, a number of law firms also responded to the consultation. They made largely similar points, such as how firms might turn away from practice areas which generate more complaints and that firms may be encouraged to settle unmeritorious cases just to stop them reaching LeO.

West Country firm Wards questioned whether complaints data would actually help consumers. “In the last 12 months, this firm opened approximately 7,950 new matters,” it said. “We had maybe five matters referred to the LCS [Legal Complaints Service]. All of them were either dismissed or mediated. So 0.063% of our cases reached the LCS. This is hardly a meaningful figure for clients to base an informed decision on.”


    Readers Comments

  • As predicted, here is my explosion of consumer outrage…

    How arrogant of lawyers to suggest that clients rarely have a justifiable complaint – just the sort of thing I hoped we were moving away from. It just goes to show that sadly many lawers still don’t understand that they are providing a service to the client and not the other way around.

    What is their definition of a justifiable complaint? As far as I am concerned, if a lawyer fails to communicate information about fees adequately, or doesn’t respond to repeated calls, or routinely fobs off a client then that is a legitimate complaint (albeit of a service and not professional conduct variety). In most cases just saying sorry would sort the matter out and avoid the need to go to the LeO at all.

    The trouble is that the firms who submitted these responses would no doubt class themselves as ‘decent’ and therefore unwilling to accept that they could get anything wrong. Unless we can change this attitude then lawyers will still get a bad press from consumers.

    More to the point, if a consumer thinks they have something to complain about then they probably do, even if this is just that they think their lawyer wasn’t very sympathetic to them. Most consumers won’t complain for the fun of it and most will understand that there is always a chance they will lose their case or not get the outcome they want and won’t just complain on this basis.

    So of course, I would agree the LeO should publish complaints information, but I also agree with Which? that this should be moderated. Even I would agree there is a big difference between a serial offender and a firm that has just had one unfortunate incident.

  • I’d like to offer three pieces of evidence that suggest we should disagree that most complaints are without merit.

    Firstly, this kind of argument is as old as the hills and it has always been wrong. I had the interesting opportunity to study what was then the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors. At that time consumer groups (and the Legal Services Ombudsman) were criticising the OSS and Law Society for complaints handling and solicitors were, very vocally, pronouncing along the lines that complaints have no merit. Readers probably only need to know that the report was called Willing Blindness to get a sense of the rather troubling picture that emerged. In summary: the OSS turned a blind eye to poor practice in the profession and tried to turn away or settle complaints as soon as possible. It is no wonder that the LSO so frequently found the procedures of the OSS (and its predecessors and successors) wanting. In casework committees I observed, if there was any tendency to favour one side or the other it was the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ tendency where lawyer committee members excused poor service because sometimes, in busy practices, clients get poor service. Well, to a fair minded reader I would like to think that the point about complaints procedures is that where poor service arises and is complained about, those complaints should be addressed not excused.

    A second reason is based on personal experience with a highly reputable firm who did some conveyancing for me. I explained the job, explained a potential wrinkle which I knew might make the job more complicated and they quoted a fee. Later they presented me with a bill of about 3 or 4 times the original quote. They said the job was more complicated because of the very same wrinkle I had pointed out in my instructions. They offered to reduce the bill by half. It was a good job I knew what I was doing and that I had also done a research project on Inadequate Professional Service. I paid the fixed fee. Their letters wreaked of gritted teeth, and I will go nowhere near them again.

    A third reason, is that I see similar cultural issues about complaints (or more correctly student feedback) in my own sphere which emulates this one. There are broadly two sets of responses to critical student feedback. One set of responses is defensive, to deny the criticisms have any validity and to seek to attack the students that criticise them. Another set is to take those criticisms, to think about them carefully, to examine the underlying teaching practices which may lead to those criticisms and to respond openly and constructively to them. One set of responses leads to better teaching and more satisfied students. The other doesn’t. I’m sure every reader can work out which one is which. That does not mean every complaint is right, but many (I would say most) have some merit in them. A professional that starts from the presumption that complainants are wrong fails to improve, loses business and damages the collective reputation of their colleagues.

  • If the new Legal Ombudsman decides not to name lawyers which are the subject of complaints then I will, and have already created a website for this purpose.

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