Standards of service

Why this risk matters

  • Poor service can lead to people not getting the help they need. This has a greater impact when someone is vulnerable or in a vulnerable situation. We know that people can be, or become, vulnerable when seeking help because it is often a stressful situation or they are at risk of harm.
  • We set the high standards of behaviour and professional competence expected of solicitors and law firms in our Principles, Code of Conduct and Statement of Solicitor Competence. These help to make sure clients receive a good standard of service and maintain the reputation of the profession.

Trends

  • Most concerns that the public report to us are about lack of competence, negligence or delay. We look at the risks to clients and the public from solicitors who are not competent and safe to practise. The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) provides redress for clients who had a poor standard of service. The proportion of complaints to LeO about poor communication and delay has increased over the last few years.
  • Conveyancing continues to attract the most complaints to both us and LeO compared to all other areas of work. Most people are satisfied with the service from their conveyancing solicitor. But when people were dissatisfied, it is often about mistakes made in legal documents or invoices and poor communication. Clear and timely information is particularly important for first time buyers and sellers, and for transactions needing specific detailed advice.
  • Poor standards of service in criminal practice can lead to severe harm, particularly as many people in the criminal justice system may be vulnerable. Many of the concerns reported to us are about solicitors breaching our Principles.
  • Independent research for us and the Bar Standards Board found that judges said that there is room for improvement in:
    • advocacy training
    • opportunities to gain experience
    • standards of case preparation
    • advocates’ ability to ask focused questions of witnesses and defendants.
  • People using immigration services are also often vulnerable. For example, those seeking asylum include unaccompanied children, people who speak or understand little English, or people who might be homeless. More of the concerns reported to us in this area of work lead to disciplinary action than those in most other areas. LeO receives more complaints about firms not releasing files or papers in immigration and asylum work than most other areas of work. We found that some solicitors do not record sufficient relevant information from asylum seekers, and do not know the specifics of a case and the law underpinning it.

Actions

  • Providing a good service makes business sense, as building and maintaining a good reputation is important for success. Understanding the needs of each client means that the right service can be given to each person.
  • Solicitors must reflect on their practice and keep their core technical, ethical and legal skills and knowledge up to date through regular learning and development. Firms could:
    • support staff training and development in core skills and knowledge, as well as communication and complaint handling skills
    • identify ways that technology can improve their processes and services
    • set out information clearly, for example under headings and in plain English, to make it easier for people to understand and refer to important points
    • give information in different formats suitable to people’s different needs, for example, in a different language or in ‘easy read’ format
    • get feedback from clients about the service and information they received
    • monitor their online presence, including reviews and social media
    • encourage an open culture about complaints and avoid placing blame on fee earners so they can respond in a productive way and share how they have learned from complaints.
  • Firms and solicitors can improve their service by giving clear, concise and accessible information throughout the work about the:
    • costs, which should be updated when the cost is likely to change
    • legal work, which could be repeated at times when people need the information most
    • progress of the work
    • complaints processes, LeO and alternative dispute resolution services.
  • The courts and advocates should make sure that people can understand and take part in the court process. Training and resources such as The Advocate’s Gateway and our youth court resources help to raise awareness of people’s vulnerabilities and how to approach them.
  • We are introducing two clear, short Codes of Conduct, for solicitors and firms. The Codes will have a greater focus on professional and ethical standards, rather than on compliance with prescriptive rules. This will also help people understand the standards they can expect from solicitors. And we will be publishing the first of our annual complaints reports in 2019 to give market-level information about the complaints received by firms.
  • To make sure the solicitors of tomorrow have the required skills and competencies we are introducing the Solicitors Qualifying Examination. This centralised assessment will mean all new solicitors meet the same high standards, helping people from every background to join the profession and provide the high standards of service needed by communities.
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