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Which? Press Release 2004

Which? Press Release 2005

Which? Press Release 2006

Which? Legal Services Reform consultation response 2006

 

2001

 

Solicitors


Arrogant, incompetent, negligent and unprofessional... just some of the things said about solicitors in our survey of complaints against them
Last year there were a massive 16,085 complaints to the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) - the complaints handling body of the Law Society of England and Wales. Disturbingly, that's equivalent to around one complaint for every five solicitors.
Other parts of the UK fared better. The Law Society for Northern Ireland received the equivalent of one complaint for every six solicitors during the same period, and the Law Society of Scotland, one for every eight.

We investigated what's behind these complaints by seeking the views of more than 340 people who felt their solicitor had given them poor service.

Our survey


Last January, we placed ads in the national press asking people who felt they'd had shoddy service from a solicitor in the last three years to contact us. We sent 700 questionnaires and received details of 348 cases from 343 people. Almost all the respondents live in England or Wales - ten were from Scotland and three from Northern Ireland. As a result, our investigation focuses almost entirely on the situation in England and Wales.

Shocking Findings


The results of our survey make depressing reading. Many of those who contacted us described their solicitors as arrogant, contemptuous, patronising or rude. And almost 40 per cent of the people felt they weren't treated with respect.
Shocking indeed, but perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that some solicitors have this attitude to their clients. Only last year, a former Law Society President, Michael Mears, wrote: 'The OSS operates on the basis of the fiction that the vast majority of its customers are worthy citizens... great numbers of [them], however, are typical Mr and Mrs Modern Brit, whingers and grievance mongers whose primary object in making a complaint is to avoid paying the bill.'

Taking legal action can be a drawn-out and complicated process. It can also be very distressing because of the sorts of issue that are often involved - for example, marriage breakdown, bereavement or injury. At the very least, it's reasonable to expect your solicitor to keep you well informed and to treat you in a courteous and professional manner. Unfortunately, we've found that this is sometimes very far from the case.

Complaints about excessive delays, negligence, serious mistakes and unprofessional behaviour were common. But perhaps worse than this, in many cases these solicitors seemed to be paying little regard to their own professional rules of conduct.

Counting the Cost


Few people would hire a builder without getting an estimate of the time and costs involved first. Yet the majority of our respondents claimed they were given neither by their solicitor. Nor were many of them told that they might have to pay the other side's costs if they lost.
In fact, solicitors' practice rules expect them to meet certain standards of client care. These include giving this type of information to their clients at the start of the case. Half of our respondents who paid privately said they were not given an estimate upfront (this isn't always required for legal aid cases). A few told us that the solicitor refused point blank: 'She refused to estimate costs even after three or four requests.'

What's more, almost half the respondents who did get an estimate found that their final bill was actually higher, and only 3 per cent said it was lower. In a couple of cases, it was so much higher that the people couldn't afford to continue: 'His estimate... was 4,000 to 5,000. In the event the fees were in excess of 30,000... after two years we could no longer afford to fund the case.'

What's going on?


Almost three-quarters of our respondents said they weren't told how long the case was likely to take - and 60 per cent of those who were given an estimate found that it actually took longer. In fact, delays were the most common gripe, with 73 per cent of all who replied feeling that the delays were excessive. There may well have been good reasons for these delays, but in many cases finding out what was going on was far from easy. Solicitors should keep their clients regularly informed about progress and costs. But over half of our respondents said they weren't kept informed about the progress of their case, and they received no reply to letters or phone calls.

Solicitors With An Attitude


Lack of common courtesy was a disturbingly common complaint. Almost 40 per cent felt they weren't treated with respect. Many people described their solicitor's attitude as arrogant, contemptuous, patronising or condescending. Others felt the solicitor wasn't really on their side - they were often belligerent, bullying and hostile, or indifferent, disregarding and uninterested. One person said: 'His attitude was arrogant and very patronising', and another: 'The solicitor seemed to assume...I would not be able to follow legal detail... a definite air of superiority, difficult to cope with when you've just suffered a bereavement.'


Although respondents from all types of background found that solicitors had similar attitudes, some of those on legal aid felt that this affected their treatment: 'I have found solicitors to be condescending, treating you as an imbecile and/or a nuisance. There seems to be much blackmail and pressure not to bother them, and being on legal aid means you're scared to upset them... they can get it withdrawn if they are so minded.'

Incompetence


Your solicitor is paid to represent your interests, so you'd expect them to do the job properly. But 58 per cent of our respondents claimed that their solicitor had made mistakes. These were often in legal documents and ranged from spelling, grammar and typing mistakes to errors in accounts. Sometimes their mistakes had serious consequences for the client. Two-thirds of people complained that their solicitor had been negligent: 'The claim form filled in by a junior was full of inaccuracies... the court documents prepared by a junior were returned by the judge as unacceptable', said one person.
Another told us: 'There were many factual and arithmetical errors which all worked to the advantage of the opposition.' And: 'They made several legal errors in dealing with my mother's will and property... they tried to cover up in an extraordinary way' [by refusing to hand over the deeds]. I'll never trust a solicitor again.'


Almost a quarter of our respondents told us that their solicitor had lost documents relating to their case. These included notes, letters, witness statements, wills, medical records and, in some cases, whole files. Again, these can have serious consequences: 'The solicitor lost the will. We now owe enormous sums in interest to the Inland Revenue.'

Complaining


Solicitors' rules say that all new clients should be told at the outset at least the name of the person they can approach if they have a complaint. But, almost three-quarters of respondents who were new to the solicitors' practice said they weren't told about the procedure.

Complaining to the practice


Just over half of the people complained to their solicitor or their solicitor's practice; 7 per cent of them felt their complaint was resolved satisfactorily, but 70 per cent didn't. In fact, more than four out of five of them were very dissatisfied with the way their complaint was handled.
The reasons they gave followed certain themes. There was a strong feeling that the solicitors closed ranks: 'I feel they all cover up for each other and the way they carry out their investigation is a total sham.' The complaints officer was sometimes the solicitor they were complaining about, and some people felt this meant they weren't getting an impartial opinion. Many people got no response at all, or said their complaint was rebuffed: 'I received no response whatsoever.'


Some felt it was the solicitor's word against theirs. If the solicitor denied the problem, there was nothing they could do. But some thought that even when they had proof, this was ignored. Others told us they received threats - for example, that fees would be increased or the lawyer would stop representing them. 'The threat of a review of charges made me reluctant to go any further', said one. 'They tried to bully me with legal action for daring to complain,' commented another. 'When I complained... at first I was pushed aside and threatened with withdrawal of their services,' said a third.

Why some didn't complain


Forty-three per cent of our respondents decided not to complain. The main reason (given by 44 per cent) was that they felt there wasn't any point: 'It's a waste of time complaining about solicitors.' Over a third thought they would find it too stressful and upsetting: 'It would have cost a lot of money to prove our point. My wife suffers from MS and I couldn't put her through any more stress.' Despite the fact that they should have been told who to complain to at the start, a quarter of those who didn't complain said this was because they didn't know how. 'When I was unhappy about the service, I didn't know how to complain or get help,' said one. 'They've got away with it and I don't see any form of recourse available to me,' said another.
Particularly worrying was that a few people were nervous about complaining because they felt the solicitor could threaten to withdraw their services or legal aid. Some felt they were not in a position to make a difference once problems occurred, because of a lack of time and money. Another said the solicitor knew they didn't have enough money to sue him.

There were a couple of happy endings, though. One person was satisfied, and another very satisfied, with the way their complaints were handled.

Culture Change


Not surprisingly, the OSS is having serious problems dealing with a huge backlog of complaints. Last January, the government warned that if the OSS failed to meet tough new targets, it may remove solicitors' right to self-regulation. It also called for improvements in client care to reduce the need for recourse to the OSS in the first place. Ann Abraham, the Legal Services Ombudsman (LSO) for England and Wales, is responsible for investigating complaints against the OSS. Earlier this year she said that, despite some improvements, the 'gap between the attitudes and behaviour of lawyers and the public's legitimate expectations of them is as wide as ever'. She said she comes across very few people who could be labelled 'professional complainers'. 'What we do see are many, many people who have been poorly served by lawyers.' In the past ten years, her office has had complaints about 60 per cent of solicitors' firms.

She highlighted the need for a culture change within the profession and stressed that any lasting progress will depend on the Law Society managing to persuade solicitors to adopt a more client-focused approach.

At long last, it seems that the Law Society has been taking steps to modernise itself. It recognises that the service offered by some solicitors falls below what the public is entitled to expect. It has put together a strategy to tackle the problem, which includes setting up a Practice Standards Unit whose main focus will be to ensure solicitors comply with the profession's client care rules. Firms will be given a risk-rating, and those with a low score will be monitored and may be told to take remedial measures. Failure to comply could lead to disciplinary action.

The good news is that complaints against solicitors have dropped by 6 per cent over the last year, and the OSS is meeting some of the government's targets. However, the LSO's level of satisfaction with the way the OSS handles complaints continues to decline.

How to Complain


If you're unhappy with your solicitor's service, you should write to the solicitor first. They may be able to put things right without need for any further action. If this doesn't help, make a formal complaint, in writing, to the partner responsible for complaints. If you're unhappy with the response, you should contact the OSS (England and Wales), the Law Society of Scotland or the Law Society of Northern Ireland, depending on where your solicitor is based. However, these organisations can't pursue claims for professional negligence. If you think you have a claim for negligence (because you suffered financial loss due to your solicitor's actions), you'll need to get legal advice.
If you are still unhappy with the way your complaint has been handled, you can complain to the relevant Legal Services Ombudsman for England and Wales or Scotland, or to the Lay Observer for Northern Ireland.

Our Verdict


While the majority of solicitors may well be providing their clients with a thoroughly professional service, it's clear that many are failing miserably. In fact, the problem could be even more widespread than the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors' (OSS) figures suggest, because despite being very dissatisfied with their solicitors, barely a third of our respondents had complained to the OSS.
We welcome the Law Society's recent initiatives, but it's yet to be seen how effective they will be in practice. As our research shows, many solicitors are currently failing even to comply with their existing practice rules. It will take significant culture change for these solicitors to start putting their clients' needs first. The Law Society has a huge challenge on its hands, not least because it still has some prominent members who are outspoken in their opposition to reform.

The Case of the Missing Claim


When it came to light that Sharron Fox's teenage sons had been sexually abused since the ages of three and five, she engaged Gartons solicitors of Wakefield to represent them. The youngest boy had been psychologically damaged by the abuse and had since been in trouble with the police. The abusers were convicted and Sharron was told her sons were entitled to compensation. She says they were told that the older boy could be entitled to around 6,000 and the younger to around 40,000 because of the disabilities he'd suffered as a result of the abuse.
After many months of asking Gartons how the claim was progressing, Sharron contacted the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board herself, and was told they had no record of her younger son's case. It turned out that Gartons had not filed the claim at all and it was now too late. Gartons then denied ever having agreed to submit the claim. However, the files were subsequently found and Sharron engaged another solicitor, and issued proceedings against Gartons for negligence. Although she had been told it was possible that her son could get a lot more, she finally settled for 42,000 as the pressure was severely distressing him.

Choosing a Solicitor


Always check that the solicitor has experience in your type of case. Just because you have used them before and were happy with them, doesn't necessarily mean they will be suitable for your current problem.

You should be able to find a specialist either by personal recommendation, via Yellow Pages or citizens' advice bureaux, or from the Law Society.

Meet with the solicitor before you take them on, and ask for details of their fees. Ask whether they'll be handling the case themselves or whether they'll be delegating it. If the latter, find out if the person is fully qualified or a trainee. If they're not fully qualified, ask who will be supervising them and how. If you want to pay on a 'no win, no fee' basis, check this is possible.


Write down a list of your questions and make a note of how they're answered. Finally, if you have any reservations, try another practice.

 

 

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