Standards of service

29 October 2019

Why this risk matters

If you do not meet high professional standards of behaviour and competence, this could cause harm to the public and to the trust they place in the profession.

Who is at risk?

Anyone is at risk of receiving a poor standard of service. And many people do not know what to expect from their solicitor and what to do if something goes wrong. People who are vulnerable or in a vulnerable situation are more at risk because the impact, as set out below, is often greater for them.

The impact

Poor standards of service can affect people’s life, liberty and finances. For example, someone can get sent to prison or lose access to their children if the solicitor has not maintained their legal skills and knowledge and not given an appropriate standard of service.

The public’s confidence in the rule of law and the overall effectiveness of the legal system can also be negatively affected by poor standards of service.

The reports we receive about possible misconduct relating to standards of service are often about:

  • poor costs information
  • acting without instructions or refusing instructions
  • not releasing documents to the client.

Around two in three of these reports come from the public and more than one in five are from the profession. Other reports are from organisations such as the police, The Legal Ombudsman (LeO) and government departments.

We recommend

To help you and your firm comply:

Know your obligations

You and your firm have a duty to maintain high standards of service provision and competence in line with our Standards and Regulations.1 You must reflect on your practice, keep core technical, ethical and legal skills and knowledge up to date and meet our continuing competence requirements.

Our transparency rules require all firms and some individual solicitors to publish their complaints handling procedure, including information about LeO and us, on their website.

  • Firms and solicitors without a website must make this information available on request.
  • This is in addition to the information about complaints that you have to give your clients as part of our Codes of Conduct for firms and for individual solicitors.

Have the right controls

You and your firm can improve your client care by giving appropriate, clear information when you are instructed and throughout the work in a format that is suitable for people’s needs. Our client care letters guidance will help you.

You can encourage a culture of learning to improve standards in service, for example by supporting staff training in communication skills, as well as core skills and knowledge.

Not placing blame on fee-earners for complaints means that they can respond productively and share how they have learned from complaints.

Your firm could train staff how best to respond to dissatisfied clients before a complaint is made and to manage complaints effectively. This can help your firm maintain high standards, along with a workplace culture that aims to continuously improve both competence and client care.

Understand your clients

Understanding the needs of each client means that the right service can be given to each person and clients are more likely to be satisfied with your service. This means you are more likely to retain clients, be recommended to others more and have fewer complaints.

Most people (87 per cent) using a solicitor are satisfied with the service they receive. People value solicitors that:

  • understand their needs and treat them fairly
  • are efficient and progress the work in a timely way
  • keep them informed and give clear information about costs.2

As highlighted in ‘Diversity in the Profession’ profession’ and ‘Meeting legal needs’, it is important to ask people about their needs so that you can be flexible and try to meet these.

Find more information

Our continuing competence resources give useful information to help you reflect on the ongoing quality of your practice.

Keep up to date with our guidance. This will help you comply with the required standards, including how to publish complaints procedures and engage with online reviews.

LeO has further resources on giving a good standard of service and responding to complaints.

What we are doing

Regulating based on evidence

Our new Standards and Regulations and the SQE aim to make high standard services more consistent across the profession.

Our annual First- Tier Complaints report helps the profession to understand the most common causes of complaints, so they can address any areas of weakness in their firms. For example, most complaints received by firms are about delay, failing to advise and excessive costs. Many of these can be resolved through better communication.

We gather evidence through our independent research, for example about solicitors’ complaints processes, conveyancing services and presenting information about costs and regulatory protections. These have informed how we support firms to improve their information about price, service, complaints and quality. And our research about the experiences of disabled people when choosing and using legal services will help us support solicitors to improve their service and information provision for all groups of people.

Taking appropriate action

Most solicitors meet the high standards expected of them and uphold the rule of law and administration of justice. Where solicitors do not comply with their professional obligations, we will investigate and take action as appropriate. For example, we might:

  • work with the firm to help them address issues
  • take enforcement action for serious issues
  • refer some of the reports we receive to LeO, where it is more appropriate for them to investigate or when the client wants to seek redress.

Our Upholding Professional Standards report sets out how complaints to us are handled, how we conduct investigations, and how we decide whether and what sort of regulatory action is necessary. And our enforcement strategy topic guide on standards of service sets out the differences between what we investigate and what LeO investigate.

We can investigate a solicitor or firm where there is a pattern of concerns about poor service standards, in line with our enforcement strategy. For example, several reports about a firm failing to reply to their clients can indicate wider competence issues or even an abandoned firm. We will take action where appropriate.

If firms are not complying with our continuing competence requirements, we might decide to take regulatory action.

Helping the public

Our new Codes of Conduct for solicitors and firms will also help people understand the standards they can expect. And we have shared other information, for example, an easy to read leaflet that tells young people how solicitors can help them.

If a member of the public reports a concern to us that we cannot help with, we will let them know if there is another organisation that might be able to assist them.