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I lifted the first two articles from the Law Society Gazette  without obtaining its permission. If it is displeased with my actions it should contact me.

 

New section: News Roundup - solicitors and other lawyers making the news from 2003 to date

Outrage: Struck off for lying and stealing, but restored to the Roll of solicitors regardless.

 

My own comment features at the bottom of the page.

 

See also: Essentials - Essential or breaking news items and information sources

 

Review of the Regulatory Framework for Legal Services in England and Wales - Sir David Clementi issues Final Report 15 Dec 2004

Sweeping reforms of the representative and regulatory functions of the legal professions. March 2005

 

 

Paul Bantock

February 2005

 

Which? issues 2004 Press Release


Taken from: The Law Society Gazette 24 Jun 2004

Put the past behind

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Janet Paraskeva argues it is time to stop the battering that the Law Society has taken for a history it has long put behind it

We will soon be discussing with the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner the Law Society's plans for building on the improvements we have recently achieved in dealing with consumer complaints. This is all part of our continuing quest to establish a system that is universally regarded as efficient and effective.

However, the question is what exactly is meant by 'efficiency and effectiveness', and what will constitute achievable performance targets?

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Interestingly, our performance has been strikingly similar to that of other complaints handlers. It is illuminating to compare, for example, the complaints handling performance of the Law Society with that of the bar, which traditionally has been praised by the Legal Services Ombudsman and so has not been subject to the imposition of a complaints commissioner. Over the last year, in the key measure of case resolution in 0-3 months, the Law Society is only 2% behind the bar - we resolved 45% of our cases within three months, while the bar achieved a success rate of 47%.

The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) is also regularly praised for its efficiency and it makes an interesting benchmark - it only resolved 44% of cases within three months. However, the FOS was better on its six months target, resolving 81% of matters within that period. Again our measure was not far behind the bar - we resolved 67% of cases within six months, the Bar Council, 68%.

The Law Society of Scotland does not measure resolution over short periods of time, but it does measure resolution of matters within 12 months. There it manages a 73% success rate - whereas we manage 89% and the bar 90%.

The Law Society is not complacent about its complaints handling work and we are working harder than ever to establish not just a satisfactory performance, but best practice and excellence.

Yet it is increasingly apparent that some of the criticism that has come our way - especially in the last year or so - has not been wholly fair.

Carrying the baggage of history is always a problem. In 1999 there was a backlog of more than 17,000 complaints, some of which lay unopened for up to a year. It was unsurprising that the then Lord Chancellor decided in 1999 to take reserve powers to appoint a Legal Service Commissioner to oversee things. But - as the figures for 2003 show - those problems are history and were already history when the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs decided to make use of those powers to appoint a commissioner last September.

Since then our performance has improved still further. Our ability to resolve matters within three months has risen to an average so far this year of 52%. On average, 70% of complaints are now resolved within six months, and 88% within 12 months. Our handling of telephone enquiries is outstandingly good. We have only a 2% abandonment rate compared with the national best practice target of 5%. The Legal Services Ombudsman herself is endorsing an increasing number of our decisions - a minimum of 60% over the last three months. With these kinds of figures it is difficult to know what is expected of us.

All in all, we are a high-volume business - but even that can be overstated. With almost 100,000 practising solicitors, we receive fewer than 17,000 complaints a year. A figure of 17,000 complaints is a lot, but as a percentage it is not. It is fewer than one complaint per solicitor every five years, a statistic that is particularly remarkable given the numbers of transactions performed by solicitors - some 15 million a year.

We will obviously look at the complaints commissioner's proposals with interest. She is after all planning to appoint - if we are to believe the recruitment advertising in the national press a few weeks ago - a team of four senior staff, at least some of whom will have teams of people working for them. Since any regulation is ultimately a cost to consumers it is essential that any expansion is no more than is proportionate and necessary.

We also have a concern about the conflict of interest that results from the appointment of one person to the posts of both ombudsman and complaints commissioner because it means one individual will be responsible both for setting the standards and for judging whether they have been met.

Clearly the ombudsman/ complaints commissioner herself recognises this is an issue, since she is considering appointing a director of operations to be responsible for the day-to-day work of the complaints commissioner.

Where the Law Society fails to meet targets set the complaints commissioner has the power to fine the Law Society. In such circumstances this conflict is clearly a worry.

Whatever our doubts about the justification for appointing the complaints commissioner, the commissioner's office is now part of the legal framework and the Law Society will be conscientious in working with her. And there is certainly work to be done if we are to become the organisation of excellence we are striving to be. But it is also time to inject some reality into the situation and to put a stop to the continual battering that the Law Society of England and Wales has taken for a history it has long put behind it.

Janet Paraskeva is the Law Society chief executive


Setting standards - September 2003, Law Society Gazette.

Janet Paraskeva looks at the improvements made by the Law Society in dealing with service complaints over the last three years, and considers the future of its regulatory role

The Law Society's offices in Redditch and Leamington Spa are the powerhouses of the Society's regulatory and consumer redress activities. Between them, these offices accommodate 750 of the Society's staff and the activities that take place there account for 70% of the Society's budget.

The Society strives hard to represent the profession well and is proud of its law reform work. But regulating solicitors is a vital role provided by the Society both for solicitors and the public. It includes controlling entry to the profession by registering solicitors and checking their qualified status, accrediting qualifying training courses for entry, setting ethical rules and standards of conduct, monitoring and compliance, enforcement and discipline. It also provides redress for consumers.

As a regulator, the Society's work underpins the reputation of solicitors and provides their professional hallmark. High standards and effective regulation are the features which distinguish solicitors from the unqualified sector of the legal services market.

Over the past three years, the Society has been working hard to modernise every aspect of its regulation. This includes its review of the education and training framework for solicitors, and a complete overhaul of the rules of professional conduct, modernising them and taking account of an environment where competition is driving the agenda.

The Society has also been working hard to improve the way it handles complaints from the public. These are complaints which have not been dealt with by the solicitor's practice and which have, therefore, caused the client to become even more dissatisfied and sometimes angry.

Three years ago, the Society recovered from an all-time low, reducing its backlog of complaints from almost 20,000 to around 5,000. The backlog had caused the then Lord Chancellor to set targets for the Society's complaints handling and to take reserve powers to appoint a Legal Services Commissioner who would fine the Society if those targets were not reached. The Law Society Council is committed to improving its complaints handling and has invested heavily on behalf of the profession to try to improve things. In the most serious cases, our investigation and enforcement work has been very successful in dealing with those few solicitors whose dishonesty brings the profession into disrepute.
 Your ALT-Text here
Paraskeva: targeting complaints

But further improvement in handling complaints has not been easy. Despite meeting, or almost meeting, challenging targets and comparing favourably with other complaint handlers in a range of jurisdictions, we reached stalemate. In fact, matters were beginning to look worse.

Six months ago, we undertook a root-and-branch review of all our complaints work. We also took account of the recommendations made by Sir Stephen Lander, the Independent Commissioner, and we are now in the process of establishing a separate directorate dealing solely with consumer complaints. This will mean that we can focus our energy and resources specifically on this particular area of work and give it the direct management that it needs. We are also introducing more streamlined procedures and have already significantly improved our telephony, making it easier for complainants to reach a member of our complaints handling team.

Handling complaints from dissatisfied customers is a job that is almost impossible to get right. Before the complainant reaches us in the midlands, they have already had poor service from their solicitor, and have tried and failed to get satisfaction from that solicitor's firm. It is also the area of the Society's work which is under the most public scrutiny. It is vital that we get our complaints handling right and that we continue to improve.

Despite the fact that the number of transactions undertaken by the profession is huge - estimates vary between eight and 12 million per year - the number of complaints against solicitors is in fact very small. However, that is not the perception of the public and, in any case, it still amounts to about 12,000 service complaints a year reaching the Society.

Complaints handling is only one aspect of the regulatory role undertaken by the Society on behalf of the profession. It will be vital that, as the Society and the profession contribute to the independent review of the regulatory framework for legal services (to be undertaken by David Clementi), consideration is given to every aspect of that role.

The review is scheduled to report by December 2004. The government will then consider its recommendations before setting out any plans for change in its manifesto for the next general election. So any legislation would fall into the next parliament, being implemented no earlier than 2008.

Over the coming months, the Society will debate the future of its roles including the maintenance of profession-led regulation particularly in standard setting, monitoring and compliance, and discipline. We look forward to a mature dialogue with the profession, with the review team and with the government about the options for the way forward. After all, as a Law Society Council member remarked recently, it is worth remembering that, back in 1845, the Society was itself founded by a radical group of people who wanted higher standards and better regulation.

• Solicitors interested in joining one of the Law Society roadshow events on these issues, should
e-mail Linda Winter at: (removed by UJ)
Janet Paraskeva is the Law Society chief executive

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This synopsis of the Legal Services Ombudsman's "Unprecedented" interim report was taken from here:

 

 

Performance of The Law Society and The Office for The Supervision of Solicitors (OSS)

In spite of substantial new initiatives, the complaints-handling performance of the OSS has continued to deteriorate:

- the OSS’ backlog has increased from 4,434 in January 2002, to 8,545 in September 2003;

- the OSS currently has a total of 281 complaints within its caseload that are more than two years old, of which 28 are more than three years old;

- the OSS is substantially underperforming in all but one of the performance targets set by the DCA for turnaround times, and has missed its satisfaction rating target by 18%.
 

Other areas of concern are:

- although solicitors’ compliance with Rule 15 is improving, it is still not universal;

- the Law Society’s attempt to improve consumers’ information through the Clients’ Charter, launched in March 2003, may prove to be little more than window-dressing unless its distribution to consumers becomes mandatory;

- I have reservations about the Law Society’s portrayal of their Independent Commissioner, and about some aspects of his role;

- there has been a very significant reduction in the range and depth of performance data being distributed by the Law Society to various stakeholders, including my Office;

- an audit of the OSS’ case-handling practices and management information systems has uncovered some highly inappropriate practices in the handling and recording of complaints between 1999 and 2001/2;

- the OSS’ ‘Model Office’ pilot has failed to deliver the necessary improvements and work on it has now ceased;

- the flagship ‘Project Engineer’ initiative to improve the OSS’ IT systems has consistently failed to deliver the expected functionality or meet deadlines, and further work has now been suspended;

- I have concerns about the potential conflict of interest in the Law Society’s recent decision to give its external auditors oversight of the existing development work on ‘Project Engineer’;

- in light of the decline in the Compensation Fund, the Law Society may need to assess the reasons for this;

- I am concerned that the Law Society’s intention to conduct regular spot checks on all firms has fallen well below target.

The OSS has shown some limited improvements:

- the OSS has worked impressively well with its external management consultants in identifying weaknesses and delivering improvements in operations in a bottom-up manner;

- in May 2003 the OSS began a major re-structuring of its operations, and in September 2003 announced that core complaints-handling activities would be moved to a new Directorate;

- there have been significant improvements in the telephony system of the OSS’ Customer Assistance Unit, which diagnoses and filters complaints;

- the OSS have developed a new policy of providing regular updates to complainants;

- the Law Society is exploring the idea of compulsory training in client care and complaints handling for solicitors, which I would suggest they implement immediately, possibly backed up by an accreditation scheme;

- the Independent Commissioner has provided useful information and recommendations to the OSS in relation to raising the compensation level, publication of disciplinary findings, and problems with the operation by solicitors of the Rule 15 complaints-handling requirements;

- the OSS has opened a new office in London earlier this year with 40 additional caseworkers to process complaints, and conservative estimates would suggest that it has probably added the capacity to process an additional 250 to 350 complaints per month;
- the number of cases being resolved by conciliation has increased marginally from under 20% to just over 24%, or an additional 100 or so cases each month;

- three new complaints-handling procedures under consideration by the OSS (‘Reasonable offer made’, ‘Provisional assessment’, and ‘Decisions without paper’) appear to have considerable merit and deserve to be driven through to implementation;

- in the months of July and September 2003 the OSS closed more cases than they received, for the first time since February 2002.
 

However, there are also considerable fragilities underlying the very modest improvement in the performance of the OSS during the past few months:

- the number of complaints received by the OSS during the last four months appears to have slowed and is substantially lower than previously anticipated, with the OSS’ own forecasts suggesting they have received 500 fewer complaints during the past 4 months than expected;

- the number of complaints accepted for investigation by the OSS and then ‘temporarily closed’ has increased from none to an average of 90 cases per month during the past 6 months, and I have asked the OSS to provide a detailed review of these cases;

- a modest increase in the number of new cases being received each month, or a relatively minor adjustment to the number of cases that are being closed, would immediately return the OSS to a state of closing fewer cases than it receives;

- on current performance, if the OSS only continues closing between 100 and 150 more cases than it receives each month, it would take 5-7 years to clear the existing backlog.


I would therefore advise some caution before assuming that this improvement signals that the OSS has finally assembled the resources needed to address new complaints, while making serious inroads into the substantial backlog and improving both the speed and the quality of their complaints handling:


- with regard to handling new complaints, I advise that the OSS takes appropriate action to increase its capacity through additional staff and/or improved productivity;

- with regard to the existing backlog, I shall be requesting a detailed analysis of all 281 OSS cases that are more than two years old and, over the coming weeks, I shall engage in detailed discussions with the OSS as to how they will reduce this backlog;

- over the last 2 years the OSS has experimented with various strategies for increasing complaints-handling capacity, and at this stage I believe that the Local Conciliation Officer Scheme and outsourcing of complaints handling to selected solicitors’ firms are the most viable options for reducing the backlog- whilst I remain uneasy about the wisdom of this latter option, it may provide a temporary solution in the short term.

- I have agreed with the OSS and the other professional bodies a programme of benchmarking, tailored to their individual needs, which will be overseen and co-ordinated by my Office;

- I suggest that the Law Society take greater responsibility for ensuring that solicitors comply with Rule 15, through some form of annual audit of all registered firms;

- I am in favour of the OSS charging solicitors a fixed fee for dealing with complaints which the firm has failed to conciliate in the first instance, and suggest that the equivalent arrangements of the Financial Ombudsman Service may be a suitable model.
 

Legal Services Complaints Commissioner (LSCC)

In respect of the Law Society, the Lord Chancellor/ Secretary of State has announced his decision to appoint the LSCC, which may provide me with the statutory authority to investigate generally the complaints-handling activities of the OSS, set targets for their improvement, request plans showing how those improvements will be delivered and, under certain circumstances, impose financial penalties if those improvements are not realised.
 

The General Councilof the Bar (Bar Council), The Council for Licensed Conveyancers (CLC), The Institute of Legal Executives (ILEX), and The Chartered Institute of Patent Agents (CIPA)


I have no significant problems to report in relation to these professional bodies.

In relation to the Bar Council:

- between April and September 2003 I was satisfied with the way in which the Bar Council had handled the complaint in 90.4% of cases, representing an increase in my overall level of satisfaction from last year’s figure of 88.2%;

- I have agreed with the Bar Council a definitions and methodology paper to enable comparisons to be made between their performance and that of the OSS;

- there have been other developments relating to improving customer satisfaction, direct access work, and chambers’ complaints-handling procedures.

I have reviewed the performance and procedures at the CLC and will be doing the same for ILEX and CIPA over the coming year.
 

Regulatory Review

The poor performance of the OSS continues to raise questions about the current framework of self-regulation.

My view is that any new regulatory framework must take a much simpler and more transparent form and should focus on improving access to justice, increasing competition, providing real protection for consumers and delivering prompt and proportionate redress when things go wrong.

With respect to increasing competition, I believe that allowing employed solicitors to provide legal services to the public (‘Tesco Law’) may drive through improvements in access, choice, service quality and price, thereby benefiting consumers and enhancing the reputation of the legal profession.

The DCA has proposed deregulating the probate market by creating ‘authorised probate practitioners’ eligible to undertake Grant of Probate work. I believe that this will require careful planning to avoid creating a two-tier system of regulation.

Office of the Legal Services Ombudsman (OLSO)

My Office continues to deliver improvements in its service levels. In the past six months the average turnaround time for dealing with cases has fallen from 5.6 months to 2.9 months. We are now closing just over 80% of cases in 3 months and 93% within six months, compared with 46% and 70% respectively for the previous reporting year. This favourable position may change if the OSS begins to clear its backlog of cases and much greater numbers of cases are referred to my Office.
 

 


 

 

 

Here's what the Office of Fair Trading says about the Law Society and its complaints handling:

The following press notice was taken from here: OFT

 

Law Society credit licence renewed for two years

 

PN 108/03    4 August 2003

The Law Society’s group consumer credit licence has been renewed for a further two years by the OFT.

The Society’s previous licence, which was also for a two-year period, expired on 2 August 2003. The licence was renewed for two years, rather than the standard five years, because of concerns regarding its complaints and disciplinary procedures. However the Law Society complaints handling body, the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS), is putting in place measures to deal with the increasing number of complaints and improve the quality of their service.

Concerns originally came to light in 1999 regarding complaints procedures and customer care. The Society’s licence has been renewed on a short-term basis since then, initially for one year periods and subsequently a two year period, reflecting improvements that had been made. The decision to renew for a further two years will allow sufficient time for the OSS’s new provisions to take effect.

John Vickers, OFT Chairman, said: ‘The public interest is best served by renewing the group credit licence of the Law Society for a further two years. Over that period, which will see the independent review of the regulatory framework for legal services, the Society’s complaints resolution service will need to get better.’

NOTES

1. Under the Consumer Credit Act 1974, a group licence can be issued to a body if the OFT is satisfied that the public interest is better served than by obliging those concerned to apply for individual standard licences. Applicants for a group licence have to satisfy the OFT that they have in place adequate means to monitor the fitness of those covered by the licence and can investigate complaints and take appropriate disciplinary action.

2. The Law Society for England and Wales’s group licence applies to activities arising in the course of practicing as a solicitor.

3. The OFT is currently reviewing the group licensing regime as a whole (see PN 15/02). The OFT expects to report on this in the autumn.

4. On 24 July, the Department for Constitutional Affairs published a report on competition and regulation in the legal services market. The report indicates that the current framework does not meet the demands of today’s market place and the needs of consumers. It announced an independent review of the regulatory framework for legal services which is to make recommendations by the end of 2004.


Solicitors seen as arrogant, slow and crooked, poll finds

Tania Branigan
Monday August 26, 2002
The Guardian

Almost half the public believe solicitors are arrogant, slow, incompetent and at worst plain dishonest, according to a survey.
Nearly half of those questioned believed their legal representatives offered poor value for money, and a quarter thought them "positively untrustworthy" in the ICM poll of 1,000 people.

RAC Legal Services, which commissioned the survey, said lawyers were providing a second rate service. It alleged that the problems were caused by the Law Society's professional rules, which created a closed shop, so that only solicitors in traditional-style partnerships could offer a full range of services. It wants the rules changed.

"People needing legal help are often facing difficult circumstances and they deserve more choice, better value and a much higher standard of care," said RAC Legal Services' managing director, Eddie Ryan.

"It is time to stop just calling for higher standards. Action must be taken to ensure they are delivered."

Last year the director general of fair trading said there were "unjustified restrictions" in solicitors' professional rules.

Last month the Lord Chancellor's Department published proposals to shake up the legal profession by allowing companies such as supermarkets to offer in-store solicitors' services.

The 80-page document also called for a thorough review of the complaints procedure for the 80,000 solicitors and 10,000 barristers in England and Wales, which could herald an end to self-regulation of the legal profession.

About 14,000 complaints are made about solicitors each year.

The legal services ombudsman, Ann Abraham, has repeatedly criticised the way the Law Society handles complaints against its members. This summer she said only 58% of complaints last year were dealt with satisfactorily by the organisation's office for the supervision of solicitors, and she described its work as "consistently shaky".

The society has just appointed its first independent commissioner for complaints. Sir Stephen Lander, currently head of MI5, will take on the part-time job in October.

Janet Paraskeva, the society's chief executive, said: "The Law Society has already publicised its commitment to open up the legal services market and we are exploring how this may be achieved without risk to consumer safeguards.

"We are aware that the RAC is one of a number of companies which view the legal services market as potentially very lucrative.

"However, the findings of the RAC survey conflict drastically with our own research amongst a much larger sample which found that 83% of clients rated their solicitor as good or very good."

She added: "The Law Society's priority is, and will remain, to ensure that any changes in the delivery of legal services leave the consumer properly protected."

Solicitors in the spotlight

New charter should reduce legal complaints, writes Neasa MacErlean

Neasa MacErlean
Sunday March 16, 2003
The Observer

The Law Society, the solicitors' body, will tomorrow unveil new measures to improve client service and reduce the number of complaints against lawyers. A charter for clients and a series of 11 free guides for homebuyers, landlords, separating couples and other users of legal services are being launched to give consumers a clearer idea of their rights and to remind solicitors of their duties.

In a separate move, the Law Society is recruiting a team of 50 inspectors who will this summer start visiting firms which are the subject of repeated complaints. Eventually, the inspectors will be checking up on all law firms - but the initial aim is to monitor closely the processes of the worst offenders and to help them improve.

The Law Society - both the regulator and trade union for solicitors in England and Wales - accepts that consumers have been frequently given a substandard service. 'Many solicitors are failing to give their clients a professional service,' it said in a statement to The Observer. In 2002, the Office of Supervision of Solicitors - the body that handles problems which firms do not settle themselves - received 14,880 complaints from the public.

The new 'Client's Charter' does not create more obligations on solicitors - but it does spell out 13 of the main duties solicitors are obliged to fulfil. For example, a solicitor is bound by the Law Society to 'give you a clear bill which shows the work done and the amount charged... tell you about any developments and update you on progress as work proceeds... respond to your letters and phone calls [and] keep you informed of costs throughout so that you can work out if a particular course of action is worth following financially'. Other rules concentrate on different aspects of the client-solicitor relationship, including the need for the solicitor to find out precisely what the client wants done.

The guides cover a range of commonly used service areas - telling you what to expect from a solicitor, what steps the solicitor will take to carry out your instructions and other useful bits of information. The titles include 'Buying a home', 'Getting a divorce', 'Making a will', 'Renting your property', 'Matters for the elderly', 'Personal injury claims', 'Problems at work' and 'Setting up in business'. The guides and charter have been sent to all solicitors and to citizens' advice bureaux, which will give them out.

'Getting a divorce', for example, tells you that your solicitor will need to know why you are looking for a divorce and that you will need to produce several different pieces of information - including a schedule of your assets and basic details (such as date of birth) of yourself and any children.

It also explains terms such as decree nisi and divorce petitions. Janet Paraskeva, chief executive of the Law Society, believes that fewer complaints should arise when consumers can be clearer about exactly what they are buying. 'The client's charter will be significant because sometimes the public are frightened to ask a solicitor to explain things in simple language,' she says. 'People don't know what to expect and don't know how various legal processes work.'

Complaints about solicitors have shown no signs of abating - they increased by 30 per cent last year. About 80 solicitors are struck off each year, but consumers do not have the right to know how many complaints have been made about a particular firm - or indeed if any complaints have been made at all.

The structure of the disciplinary process aims to deal with solicitors as individuals rather than striking off firms or warning consumers of the poor records of some firms. Although the Law Society can intervene in the running of firms, the public are likely to be unaware of this fact unless a firm is closed down.

Paraskeva believes that the speed of change has caused some problems. 'Consumers have become much more educated and expect a faster, more rigorous service. We all expect more from the services delivered to us. But there are some solicitors who find this change quite difficult. Clients may well be quite ahead of them.'

The Law Society also believes that clients going through stressful situations - such as divorce or homebuying - may transfer some of their frustration and resentment to their solicitors.

Contacts

The Law Society (to order the guides and charter): 0870 606 6575

The Office for the Supervision of Solicitors: 0845 608 6565

The Legal Services Ombudsman: 0161 839 7262

 

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

 

 

 

 

Threat of huge fines on Law Society. Clare Dyer writes for The Guardian

 

Ah, Heck - I like the article so much that I can't resist posting it here, with apologies to The Guardian and Ms Dyer. I'll take it down if requested.

 

Threat of huge fines on Law Society

Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
Saturday September 27, 2003
The Guardian

The Law Society faces possible fines of millions of pounds if it fails to get a grip on the rising tide of complaints against solicitors, after the government announced plans yesterday to strip the 178-year-old body of its long-cherished right to regulate the profession.

Lord Falconer, the lord chancellor, announced the creation of a new legal services complaints commissioner with powers to impose targets on the society and fine it if it fails to meet them.

The creation of the new office - inevitably dubbed "Oflaw" - is a massive blow to the society for solicitors in England and Wales which has been fighting government threats to remove its self-regulatory powers for around four years.

It has been in last-ditch negotiations since June to try to stave off the loss of its powers, and it only learned on Thursday night that it had been unsuccessful.

The president, Peter Williamson, said: "We are disappointed with the lord chancellor's decision to appoint a complaints commissioner. It is not clear how this can help.

"Our complaints handling has improved significantly over recent years. However, we will work constructively with the commissioner."

Lord Irvine, the former lord chancellor, took reserve powers in the Access to Justice Act 1999 to appoint a commissioner, warning the society that it was "drinking in the last chance saloon" and that the powers would be activated unless complaints handling improved.

But despite a large infusion of extra funds into the complaints handling system, Lord Falconer told solicitors at their annual conference in London yesterday that improvements had not gone far enough.

"I cannot stand by and do nothing, despite your best efforts to improve," he said.

"The solicitor's role as the conduit between the public and the legal system is vital, but it will only continue to work effectively if you ensure that your services and subsequent complaints handling processes are carried out to a high standard."

The role of commissioner will be carried out initially by the legal services ombudsman, Zahida Manzoor. This will be an interim measure until the Prudential chairman, David Clementi, who is carrying out a government-commissioned review of regulation for the whole legal services sector, reports at the end of 2004.

That would be "much, much too long to wait" for reforms to the system, Lord Falconer said.

To rub salt into the wound, the society will be required to pay for the entire cost of the new commissioner's work.

The commissioner's role will be to scrutinise the society's overall complaints-handling process, while the ombudsman's office will continue to be concerned with how well the society responds to individual complaints.

During the 12 months to March 2003, the ombudsman received 1,750 new cases from members of the public dissatisfied with the way the society had handled complaints against solicitors. The society's office which handles complaints, has been dealing with a backlog for several years.

The commissioner will try to agree a plan of improvements, but if this fails she will have powers to impose targets. If the targets are not met, she will be able to fine the society.

Lord Falconer said he would have to consult with the society, the commissioner, and other interested parties, before fixing a maximum fine.

He refused to give a figure but said: "It has got to be of a sufficient amount as to have an effect on a professional body such as the Law Society."

Asked if this could run into millions of pounds, he added: "The maximum level of the fine has got to be pretty high." The society has a budget of nearly £90m.

The powers could be comparable to those the financial services authority uses. Lloyds TSB was this week fined £1.9m for mis-selling high income bonds.

Lord Falconer said: "The process by which complaints are dealt with has not commanded public confidence over the years. It is a significant problem."

He described a culture in firms of not trying to satisfy a complainant but trying to "knock out a complaint by a detailed analysis of the facts", or regarding a complainant as "someone who doesn't quite understand the process, and therefore must be wrong".

 

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003

The Guardian


 

I must admit to experiencing a thrill of Schadenfreude at the Law Society's attracting so much attention over its handling of complaints, but such increasing attention also gives me a pang of disquiet, despite the obvious anti-solicitor premise of this web site. There are many powerful arguments for our legal professions retaining a measure of independence from government. We should not forget that the laws by which we all agree to abide are of our own making; proposed, debated, enacted and then tested by the democratic principles and processes for which millions have given - as many continue to give - their lives to protect and enhance. It would in my view be too simplistic and convenient to call for stripping the Law Society of its self-regulating privilege without contemplating deeply its replacement as a regulator. Handing total control of the law and its practitioners to governments would in effect allow the law to become an instrument of state instead of one by which we avail ourselves of our rights. The debate should in my view focus on how we can fairly access those rights rather than let wealth or power alone be the (apparent) sole prerequisites. The distinction between instrument of state and right of access is subtle, but interested readers should follow the crucial debates on matters of Corpus Juris and Habeas Corpus surrounding the further integration of the European Union and the process of "Globalisation". Some would argue that the high levels of fraud and corruption within the European Union and its agencies do not accord the European Parliament the right to adopt unilaterally the doctrine of Corpus Juris. Any discussion or comment on this page will be gladly received and posted unedited in the Letters section, but I won't publish any racist or otherwise offensively extreme material.

 

 

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Paul Bantock

30 September 2003

 

 

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