Standards of service
Why this risk matters
- Poor service from a solicitor 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 legal 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.
- 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
- The Legal Services Consumer Panel found that there has been an increase in the proportion of people satisfied with the service from their solicitor. And more people feel confident about complaining to their solicitor, meaning there has been a decrease in the proportion of ‘silent sufferers’.
- Most people are satisfied with the service from their conveyancing solicitor. But conveyancing is the most common area for complaints to both us and LeO compared to all other areas of work. When people were dissatisfied, it is often about:
- mistakes made in legal documents or invoices
- poor communication.
- People using immigration services are often vulnerable. For example, those seeking asylum include unaccompanied children, people whose first language is not English, or people who might be homeless. We take more disciplinary action about concerns reported to us in this area of work than those in most other areas. 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. LeO receives more complaints about firms not releasing files or papers in immigration and asylum work than most other areas of work.
- 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.
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.
What firms can do
- 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 technical, ethical and legal skills and knowledge up to date through regular learning and development. Our continuing competence toolkit gives useful information and resources to help. 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
- tell people about Legal Choices as this can help them understand the legal process more
- 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.
- From December 2018, firms must display prices and service information if they publish the fact that they work in certain practice areas. Firms also have to publish information about their complaints process and that clients can progress their complaint to LeO. Firms must publish the information in a prominent place on their website or make the information available in other formats if they do not have a website.
- 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.
What we are doing
- 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 first tier complaints’ reports in 2019 to give market-level information about the complaints received by firms.
- We have been working with LeO to tell the public about how they can complain to both us and LeO. This follows the recommendations of the independent research we both commissioned: Research into the experiences and effectiveness of solicitors' first tier complaints handling processes. This includes sharing leaflets with members of the public, consumer representative groups and charities, such as Advice UK and Citizen’s Advice.
- We now have joint guidance with LeO on how a firm can publish their complaints processes.
- 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.
- We are addressing concerns with the standards of advocacy by developing our approach to regulation so that we:
- better assure standards at point of entry and award relevant practice rights through a rigorous, standardised assessment
- support practitioners to meet our high standards
- use information we receive to drive up standards and target those solicitors at greatest risk of not meeting our standards.