The value of taking complaints seriously

In this year’s Risk Outlook, we are taking a closer look at complaints handling as part of poor standards of service. Law firms provide us with information about their complaints, so we have been looking at trends over the last few years. Alongside this we have also been looking at data from the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), and we invited LeO staff to come and discuss this risk with us.

Background to legal services complaints

When people have a problem with their solicitor’s service, they will go through the following process.

  • Complaints made directly to law firms are called first tier complaints, as the firm is the first port of call to resolve a problem. People cannot complain to LeO until they have complained to the firm.
  • If a person is still not happy with how their complaint has been dealt with by the law firm, they can then complain to LeO.
  • LeO can then resolve service complaints. However, if the complaint is about solicitor misconduct or breach of our rules, as opposed to service, then people can report it to us. LeO direct these types of complaints to us.

Why is complaints handling important?

It is important that people who use legal services have access to redress if something goes wrong. This not only helps clients but also helps uphold the reputation of solicitors and law firms—people know they can take action if something goes wrong, and this inspires confidence in the sector.

It is also worth thinking about the impact on clients of lack of communication, which is at the root of many complaints. If a client doesn’t hear from their provider for a while, they may start to worry about their case, or if they haven’t been given enough information about costs, they may be unable to plan for it and it could affect their ability to pay day to day costs like bills.

Good complaints handling can make a real difference, particularly when it is used to inform training and learning across a firm to improve services for future clients.

First tier complaints data

Looking at the data we collect from law firms about their first tier complaints:

  • the most common type of first tier complaints that firms receive are complaints about delay, and this has been true every year 2012-2015
  • apart from delay, the other most common types of complaint have been failure to advise, excessive costs, complaints about conduct, failure to keep informed and failure to progress
  • the majority of first tier complaints are resolved in house, but from the data firms report to us, around 1 in 6 first tier complaints go on to be referred to LeO.

Ombudsman perspective

After looking at our own data, it was interesting to hear the work LeO is doing to look at patterns in its complaints. Their results were quite similar to the first tier: failure to advise, excessive costs and delay were all in the top five. They also looked at areas of law with the most complaints, with residential property coming out top—which could arguably be expected due to the high number of transactions compared to other areas of law. As well as providing statistics about numbers of complaints, LeO has published a number of reports looking at areas of complaints in more depth, including complaints about claims management companies and divorce related complaints. These reports can help legal service providers understand the types of issues LeO are seeing and what has been done to put them right.

Next steps: resolving complaints in house

So after speaking to LeO and looking at our data, what did we find out?

The good news from our data on first tier complaints is that most complaints are resolved in house, meaning the complaint does not need to go to LeO. If you are interested in finding out more about good complaints handling, LeO’s website is a good place to start, and LeO is also able to speak to individual firms about best practice. Another helpful source of information can be your firm’s own complaints data—understanding areas of common complaints can help improve services, as can getting feedback from clients.

All in all, it was really helpful speaking to LeO staff and understanding how good complaints handling can mitigate the risk of poor standard of service. Look out for more on this issue in this year’s Risk Outlook, and in the meantime have a look at the wide range of resources on LeO’s website.

Coming soon

To learn more about the Outlook and our priority risks, we will be streaming daily discussions live on Periscope in late July. Look out for more information on this in next months blog.

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