Related Sector: Complaints

The legal ombudsman is in the consultation phase of a new set of proposals that, if put into practice, will dramatically change the complaints process against solicitors in the UK. These proposals make up the first comprehensive amendments to the complaints process since 2012.

What are the new proposals?

The first of these new proposals is to limit the time that a complaint against a solicitor can be lodged, from within six years of an alleged mistake (or within three years of discovering the issue being complained about) to within one year for all new cases. Complaints will however be assessed on a case-by-case basis and investigators have the discretion to extend this time period if it is fair and reasonable to do so., For example for a public interest reason or where a client did not want to raise a complaint while their matter was ongoing.

The ombudsman is also proposing to allow a complaint to be dismissed by its staff without the need to carry out an investigation, where matters such as the nature and scope, the volume of evidence or the complainant’s conduct ‘’is such that it would be disproportionate for an investigation to be carried out’’. For example, if it would be disproportionate to the value of the claim to start an investigation.

The ombudsman can currently exercise their discretion to dismiss a claim where satisfied the complainant has not suffered any financial loss, distress, inconvenience, or other detriment, but the consultation proposes qualifying this threshold with the word ‘significant’, to introduce the principle of proportionality. It stated that ‘’the proposed new rule would only apply to a small number of complaints, but those cases would be ones which are considered to be unreasonably, or unmanageably imposing and would absorb so much time and resource that it could be considered a disproportionate use of resource to investigate them.”

In addition, the ombudsman is proposing that cases mid-investigation be dismissed if a reasonable offer is made by a law firm to settle the case and that a final decision can be deemed not necessary, if investigators consider no substantive issues have been raised by the complainant.

Why have these changes to the rules been proposed?

It is no secret that for many years, the legal ombudsman has been struggling to manage the volume of cases, and the growth of the pre-assessment pool (the cases that have not yet been allocated to an investigator) has now become out of control. In its draft 2022/23 business plan and budget, the ombudsman predicted that this number is set to rise to 6,732 new cases.

In addition, matters that do progress can take disproportionally longer to resolve than the value of the complaint itself. For example, a case study in the consultation cites a 500-page complaint, which took an experienced investigator nearly 18 months to conclude and was deemed worthy of a £500 remedy.

Therefore, the ombudsman’s governing body, The Office for Legal Complaints hopes that the changes would provide the investigators with the flexibility to resolve cases more quickly, against a background of complaints continuing to pile up at the start of the process.

Elisabeth Davies, Chair of the OLC Board stated:

This important and necessary consultation is about removing obstacles to delivering improvements for customers. We want to be sure that the proposals we have outlined allow the Legal Ombudsman to achieve a more balanced approach to the resolution of complaints, whilst retaining the core benefit of accessing independent and fair legal redress.

Through extensive pilot projects undertaken in 2021/22, we have seen that that implementing targeted change can bring valuable improvements to business processes and improve the overall customer experience. The review is about identifying new freedoms and building in the ability to resolve complaints in a proportionate and more efficient way.”

What are the next steps?

The proposals will inevitably require a more formal implementation process, and specifically the approval of the Lord Chancellor, however the consultation is a starting point to a potentially very different complaints handling culture.

The consultation period will run for eight weeks and closes at 12pm on Wednesday 13 April 2022.

Author: Meera Shah, Content Manager
This article was first published on Wednesday 23rd February 2022

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