During this unusual period whilst most of us have been working from home, clients have been grateful that the profession has continued to operate and provide vital legal services. Solicitor-client relationships seem to have become more harmonious with a “Dunkirk spirit” prevailing as everyone has strived to provide business as usual within the confines of the lockdown. One might be forgiven therefore for forgetting the existence of the Legal Ombudsman (“the LeO”). However, as we move towards the present trading conditions being regarded as normal, client expectations will no doubt rise once again to pre-Covid levels with a corresponding rise in complaints for the LeO.
The LeO’s annual report published in September 2020 records that in 2019/2020 it accepted 6,425 new cases and concluded 6,384. In 51% of cases the ombudsman found unreasonable service and in 49% of cases it found reasonable service. Residential conveyancing (28%) topped the chart of the areas of law that attracted the most complaints followed by personal injury (15%), wills and probate (13%), family law (13%) and finally litigation (9%). Complaints were divided into delay/failure to progress (24%) failure to advise (24%) poor communications (21%), cost (19%) and failure to follow instructions (13%).
Apart from the data highlights which tend not to change significantly from year to year and are interesting in themselves, there are useful case studies and guidance on comaplants handling within the annual report which are helpful and can be adapted for in-house training for staff. As ever, the complaints tend to be not so much about legal knowledge but more about handling client expectations and delivering good customer service.
The LeO’s own customer service on the other hand has come in for criticism in recent times. The new incoming Chair Elizabeth Davies has admitted that the organisation needs to “rebuild confidence” with lawyers and with the public. She acknowledged that there were problems with staff motivation, recruitment, and retention as well as significant delays in resolving complaints.
Reviews on Trustpilot about the LeO customer service are unfavourable. The LeO scores one star out of five which is classed as bad. Complainants have not held back in condemning the LeO with comments such as-
“I didn’t even want to give them one star”
“OMG, what a corrupt organisation”
“It’s a pity there is no option for 0 stars”
To add to this sorry tale, the LeO has been forced to drop plans for a 21% budget increase so is working within a standstill budget. Increased pressure also comes from thousands of unresolved complaints which have piled up as Covid has affected the LeO’s operational performance.
Against this background of fundamental difficulties, the LeO has, surprisingly, not held back with new ideas and recommendations for the future. As well as the launch of a new website, its plans to ensure greater transparency include publishing the full decisions of the ombudsman. More controversially, the LeO is concerned by the lack of redress available to consumers of unauthorised providers and would welcome being allowed to extend its reach to deal with complaints about unregulated firms. And, finally, on the shopping list, the incoming Chair has announced her support for extending the LeO service so as to reach out to so-called “silent sufferers” i.e. those who do not complain even though they are dissatisfied.
Dealing with complaints about poor service has never been an easy task. A client who is not satisfied with the performance of his legal advisers and then not satisfied with their attempts at complaints handling does not necessarily arrive at the LeO’s door in a conciliatory frame of mind. So, surely, it would be preferable for the LeO to concentrate on doing a difficult job well rather than trying to add consumers of unregulated providers and “silent sufferers” to the long list of its own dissatisfied customers. The LeO may also have overlooked the fact that complaints by clients of legal services which are provided by solicitors employed by unregulated organisations will soon be arriving at the door.
Resources and priorities should be the key objectives here so that the LeO can put its own house in order before looking to resolve complaints against other organisations.
Whilst it is tempting to criticise the LeO, it can or should perform an important service which can enhance the reputation of the legal profession.
A satisfactory outcome to a complaint can leave a client accepting that mistakes had been made and that he had just instructed the wrong law firm on this occasion.
An unsatisfactory outcome can leave a client with an unreasonable hatred for the profession and a penchant for posting outrageous comments on social media for many years to come. I know which option the legal profession would prefer.
With a new Chief Ombudsman and a new Chief Operating Officer at the helm, the LeO has the chance to move forward and improve but only if it is not diverted away from its key performance indicators. Actions not words are what are needed here for the benefit of all concerned.