Thursday, October 17, 2019

Complaints Data Update

There has been a flurry of activity regarding complaints in recent months with the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) publishing its annual report 2018-19 and the SRA publishing reports on First-tier complaints and Standards of Service within the profession.

Some key findings which provide food for thought are set out below:

On a positive note….

  • The majority of clients are satisfied with the service they receive and believe it represents value for money.
  • Whilst there has been an increase in complaints to firms, this is offset by the significant increase in firms resolving complaints internally, which has risen from 72% in 2012 to 81% in 2018.
  • The majority of firms (55%) are committed to training staff to respond to dissatisfied clients before they make complaints.  This is something which we have picked up on as a key concern when handling complaints outsourced to us in that it is really important that file handlers are alert to and possess the necessary client care skills to nip complaints in the bud at an early stage where possible. Where this is handled well, the benefits can be twofold as it would prevent a more minor grumble from escalating into a full-blown formal complaint as well as promoting an open line of communication between the client and the file handler.
  • Nearly 4/5 people surveyed by the SRA said they would feel more confident in using services from a firm that displayed its new SRA clickable logo on its website (which becomes a mandatory requirement from 25.11.19).

It may come of little surprise to hear….

  • The most common first-tier complaints reported to the SRA (and also the most commonly resolved complaint types between 2012 and 2019 at the first-tier stage) related to delay, failure to advise and excessive costs. Similarly, the top 5 complaint types against legal service provided noted by the Leo were delay, failure to progress, failure to advise, failure to follow instructions, cost and poor communication.
  • Certain areas of law consistently attract more complaints to the LeO, namely conveyancing, family law, wills and probate and personal injury/ litigation.
  • There is a correlation between the size of firm and resolution of complaints: the larger the firm the more likely a complaint will be resolved, which the SRA attribute to larger firms having dedicated resources to handle complaints.
  • There is no relationship between the location of the firm and the number or types of complaints resolved.

Interesting to note….

  • There are fewer ‘silent sufferers’ – those that are unhappy with the service received but did not make a complaint – down from 49% in 2017 to 35% in 2018.
  • The number of complaints accepted for investigation by the LeO reduced from 7,527 in 2017-18 to 4,022 in 2018-19, yet at the same time they failed to meet timeliness targets in cases concluded within 6 months and 1 year – which they attribute to a backlog of legacy cases accepted for investigation under their previous case management system.
  • Despite the reduction in complaints accepted by the LeO for investigation, there has been a substantial increase in the level of awareness of the LeO both by members of the public and users of legal services – up to 68% and 75% in 2018/19, compared with 58% and 60% in 2016/17 respectively.
  • The LeO closed a higher proportion of cases by way of an ombudsman’s final decision, as opposed to an agreed outcome, when compared with previous years. There was a higher proportion of cases where the ombudsman found that the service was not reasonable (54%), compared to the previous 2 years where the majority of cases were found to have been of a reasonable standard.
  • There has been a substantial increase in the level of awareness of the LeO by members of the public - up to 68% in 2018/19, compared with 58% in 2016/17 and up to 75% for users of legal services in the last 2 years, compared with 60% in 2016/17.

In addition, the LeO has published guidance on complaints alleging negligence which clarifies some key points when handling complaints at the first-tier stage. This includes:

  • Where a client uses words such as ‘negligence’ or ‘misconduct,’ it is important to be pragmatic and consider what has caused the complaint and the client’s intentions, before deciding how to deal with it. Is the underlying problem due to service issues rather than negligence? Is it something that can be dealt with internally via the complaint’s procedure?
  • Where it appears that there may be negligence or the client intends to pursue this route (and where there is a requirement by the PI insurer to tell them of all incidents where negligence is alleged), report the matter to the firm’s PI insurer and seek their advice on how to proceed. Acknowledge the complaint, explain the course of action taken to the client and set out next steps, including timescales for a response where possible. Inform the client of their right to refer their complaint to the LeO after 8 weeks have passed.
  • The involvement of insurers does not negate the firm’s responsibility to cooperate with an investigation by the LeO. In such a scenario, the LeO suggests that firms contact them to agree a way forward.

We recommend that all firms familiarise themselves with the contents of the full guidance note which can be viewed at: https://www.legalombudsman.org.uk/?portfolio=complaints-alleging-negligence-guidance