New legal ombudsman Adam Sampson gives his first interview
Adam Sampson is the first to acknowledge that his new job as legal ombudsman is potentially a poisoned chalice. One of the main catalysts of the Legal Services Act (LSA), which brought his organisation into being, was (as he puts it) ‘the woeful record on complaints-handling [of] the Legal Complaints Service and predecessor bodies’. The former chief executive of homeless charity Shelter goes still further, using the word ‘scandal’ to describe the profession’s past inability to get its house in order.
It is often overlooked that the 2007 reforms were driven as much by the profession’s much-criticised track record on complaints, as they were by any pro-competition agenda on the part of the last government. Over a decade ago, way before the phrase ‘Tesco Law’ entered the legal lexicon, the then lord chancellor, Lord Irvine, gave the Law Society until the end of 2000 to sort out complaints-handling or it would lose part of its regulatory powers. Four years later, the consumer group Which? identified the profession’s continued failure to deal with unhappy clients as ‘the greatest threat to self-regulation’, and ministers threatened the Law Society with a £1m fine if it failed to address the problem.
Since that nadir, Sampson acknowledges that the LCS ‘hugely improved’ the situation, while noting that ‘the damage had been done’.
He adds: ‘That problem is increasingly now going to be my problem rather than that of the profession,’ he reflects. ‘I am quite clear about that.’
The LSA takes responsibility for complaints-handling out of the hands of the profession, placing it squarely at Sampson’s door. LeO, as the service is now known, is expected to open for business on 6 October. Parliament has yet to sign off on the commencement order required for the new office but that, Sampson says, is only a matter of timetabling. The new organisation has the endorsement of the new government and will not therefore be tossed on the Tories’ ‘bonfire of the quangos’.
Staff had only just moved in to LeO’s Birmingham HQ when the Gazette interviewed its head last week. ‘We doubled in staff this Monday,’ he says, adding that the total payroll now stands at 120.
A new IT system has yet to be road-tested and recruits are presently undergoing thorough and compulsory training.
At full strength the office could be 350 strong – but, controversially, only 50 have been drawn from predecessor body the LCS so far. Sampson spent a few days in the High Court earlier this year successfully fighting off a judicial review over whether the new organisation should take on LCS staff under the TUPE laws. Mr Justice Akenhead ruled that TUPE did not apply because LeO was an independent government body.
So why have so few staff come from the LCS? For a number of reasons, replies Sampson. Some did not want to make the move from Leamington Spa to Birmingham. LeO pays less than the LCS, reflecting the local job market (investigator salaries start in the low £20,000s). ‘The Law Society did agree a 12 months’ pay supplement but it looks as though pay has been an issue,’ he adds.
There was also unwillingness on the part of some to ‘join an organisation that is going to do something in a very different way and with a very different culture’. Sampson readily acknowledges that there is also a ‘perception issue’ on the part of LeO as well. It was important for the organisation not to be ‘encumbered with the cultural baggage of the old organisation’, he says, and that it made a conscious effort to ‘make a distinction between the culture and people’. Individually, people can be fantastic,’ he says, but adds: ‘If you get too many people with an existing set of assumptions then you automatically bring the culture.’
He is also conscious that the consumer groups have been ‘hugely critical of the existing arrangements, the LCS and all the predecessor bodies. How could I possibly explain to them that they need to have trust in these new arrangements, that we were something that they could trust, only that we were staffed by the same people?’
What can the profession expect from LeO? The new body is a single ombudsman scheme covering consumer complaints about all lawyers (not just solicitors but barristers, licensed conveyancers, and legal executives) and promises to be independent and impartial.
Practitioners might be forgiven for glazing over at the prospect of another complaints-handling scheme for the profession. And they have already had one ‘ombudsman’, the formidable Zahida Manzoor (both Legal Services Ombudsman and Legal Services Complaints Commissioner), who was often sharply critical of the process.
How will LeO be different? On one level, the ‘shape’ of the new process is the same, Sampson replies. There will be a volume call-handling ‘front end’, fielding an anticipated 100,000 ‘contacts’ a year (letters, emails and phone calls). This will be whittled down to about 15,000 to 20,000 cases that fall within scheme rules to investigate. The other 85,000 people need to be signposted to other sources of help. Then there is a complaints-handling process which ‘investigates and then resolves by agreement if possible’ those cases that are within the scheme. Intractable disputes go to the ombudsman for a full decision.
‘Where things will differ will be the style of the operation,’ Sampson promises. Ombudsman schemes are different to the kind of experience that lawyers have had previously. ‘They are necessarily and overtly independent, informal and inquisitorial. They aren’t part of the profession.’ He points out that the LCS is ‘owned and still feels part of the professional family’.
For example, a complaint made to the LCS or the Bar Standards Board ‘mirrors the court process’ insofar as it is ‘formal and legalistic’, he explains. Statements are taken; copies passed to the other side; comments are then copied; both sides make submissions; and if verbal statements are taken they are transcribed. That whole process is paper-based.
‘Those are not features of the inquisitorial process,’ he says. ‘All we are interested in is finding out what happened. Of course we will give both parties the opportunity to comment on what we believe we have found. We will prefer to deal with things by phone and email rather than formal, written letter.’ Where phone calls are made, they will not be transcribed. Instead they will be recorded as voice files and attached to the notes in case of a challenge. ‘Everything will be paperless,’ he says. His main observation about his recent trip to the High Court relates to the huge amount of unnecessary paper work.
Some of LeO’s approaches will – as Sampson puts it – ‘challenge the cultural assumptions of the profession’. His purpose will not be to come up with ‘a binary answer’ (‘yes/no’ or ‘guilty/innocent’) because professional services complaints are often not clear cut. ‘The amount of grey often hugely overwhelms the amount of black-and-white,’ he says.
‘The other thing some solicitors might struggle with is we’re not a rules-driven organisation,’ he continues. The ombudsman will not be interested in whether lawyers have followed every detail of guidance from the Solicitors Regulation Authority. ‘You can follow the rules and provide a poor service. You can drive a horse and cart through the rules but provide fantastic customer service. It is the service provided that matters.’
Behind this approach, the watchdog has real teeth. The LeO can order an award of up to £30,000 for poor service. Although Sampson is keen to get the language right, he prefers ‘redress’. As he explains it, ‘award’ suggests a sentence ‘for wrong which has been done’ whereas ‘redress’ is ‘a mechanism for putting the consumer back in the position they should be in’.
What will his personal approach be? Will he be a crusading consumer champion? ‘An ombudsman is entirely neutral between consumer and profession,’ he says. ‘An ombudsman who is a consumer champion is failing in their primary duty to be independent. You cannot take one side or the other.’
So he will not be as outspoken as Manzoor? ‘I have spent many years as a campaigner,’ he says. ‘I know the difference between campaigning and information-giving. This is not a campaigning job; it is not my job to wag my finger at the profession. My job is to say to the profession very firmly here is what I am finding, here are the things that you might need to think about in terms of structural failures.’
Sampson began his career as a probation officer in London before becoming deputy director of the Prison Reform Trust in 1989. He was later assistant prisons ombudsman at the Home Office and chief executive of drugs charity RAPt. He became chief executive of Shelter in 2002.
From heading high-profile campaigning charities that seek to improve the lot of society’s marginalised to a startup watchdog in professional services seems something of a departure. Why make the move? Sampson insists it is ‘vocational’ and that there is ‘a mission-driven element’. He points out that he has been involved in a couple of major turnaround jobs and the move represented ‘an opportunity to set up a high-performing organisation’ from scratch.
Sampson has strong views about lawyers but, he makes clear, no antipathy toward the profession. Indeed, he is married to a lawyer and has worked with lawyers for many years on the frontline in prisoners’ rights and human rights, as well as in housing. ‘Shelter had 35 solicitors and 600 people who, in a law firm would be described as "paralegals". Each and every one worked out of a sense of mission and a desire to help.’
He recalls coming into Shelter at 2am on a weekend and ‘seeing my solicitors still there with a stream of refugees who had emergency housing needs. Their clients had nowhere else to go. These were not lawyers taking advantage. These are people using their legal qualification to help. That is a picture of the profession that remains significantly true.’
Equally, Sampson has seen his share of dodgy lawyers, in particular working as a probation officer. ‘My God, I saw some dismissive and shoddy work with some pretty vulnerable people that nobody ever really saw or cared about.’ His background in frontline services will no doubt mean that his dealings with recalcitrant professionals will be direct and to the point.
Does he think the issue of complaints will continue to be a thorn in the profession’s side in the post-LSA world? The challenge for the profession will be different. Lawyers can expect greater scrutiny of their own complaints-handling. ‘The Legal Services Board is very clear that there needs to be a significant improvement... and let me be plain, I will be as interested in how individual firms dealt with the complaints as to how the complaint arose in the first place.’ Beware; he will have little patience with correspondence that is ‘full of legal jargon and gobbledygook and written to someone who plainly has no ability to understand it’.
But, of course, it is an advantage for the profession that new arrangements mean ‘the responsibility for the discharge of the administrative function moves outside the hands of the profession’. He adds: ‘The profession can no longer be blamed for a structural failure to handle complaints. That is my problem and I can be a scapegoat for that.’
Jon Robins is a freelance journalist