There are concerns about the outstanding level of complaints at the outgoing Legal Services Ombudsman (LSO), Legal Futures has learned.
Zahida Manzoor’s personal contract comes to an end on 2 March, and her office in Manchester will close on 31 March, with a number of cases likely to be outstanding – although Ms Manzoor says her office has been performing to a high standard in difficult circumstances.
Nonetheless, the Lord Chancellor, Ken Clarke, issued a direction to the LSO in December about which types of cases to prioritise, it has emerged.
The LSO dealt with complainants who were unhappy with how the Legal Complaints Service (LCS) and the other legal complaints bodies handled their cases. Complainants have six months to refer their case to the LSO, and with the LCS still working through its outstanding caseload (now around 200) ahead of its own shut-down at the end of March, cases could still be referred to the LSO for much of 2011.
As a result there were always going to be some cases the Manchester office could not deal with before it closed, especially as it has been losing staff, while the LSO has been receiving more cases than in previous years. Under the direction issued by Ken Clarke, all cases received before the end of 2010 have to be closed by 28 February.
John Norton, one of the ombudsmen at the Legal Ombudsman service, will be appointed acting LSO for the rest of 2011 to deal with any outstanding cases, supported by a dedicated team. The LSO no longer has the power to order the professional body to reconsider a complaint, so where he considers the original investigation to be inadequate, he will recommence the investigation and conduct it himself.
Government sources have confirmed to Legal Futures that there have been problems in Manchester, and in his report to next week’s Law Society council meeting, chief executive Des Hudson says the LSO’s position is “less happy” than that of the LCS: “It appears that – although [Ms Manzoor’s] case load is well under 10% of the LCS’s case load – there are at present well over 300 cases outstanding. Many of these arise from matters referred to the LSO office several months ago.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “The existing Legal Services Ombudsman is being scaled down during 2011 following the launch of the new Legal Ombudsman scheme in October 2010. A plan for the transition to the new scheme was constructed by stakeholders alongside the Ministry of Justice and was agreed by all of the approved regulators. We expect all cases to be completed by September 2011.”
Adam Sampson, chief executive of the Legal Ombudsman, said: “The undertaking from the Ministry of Justice is that the backlog of work before 31 December 2010 will have been completed by Zahida Manzoor and her team. Plainly if that’s not completed then there is a problem… but we have full confidence in Zahida and her team to make sure that backlog is completed.”
Ms Manzoor told Legal Futures: “My office has completed more cases than it did in the same time last year with significantly less staff. I am delighted with the progress and the closure programme.”