Ombudsman stance plays into hands of the Co-op

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If I had a pound for every client/customer debate I’d heard, I’d probably have… £10 or so.

Most of the time, I retreat before the argument gets going, ignoring this irrelevant and diversionary issue. Frankly, it matters not what the bill payer is called, just that they walk away (or more likely log off) from the encounter happy.

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Chief legal ombudsman Adam Sampson believes that too many customers (his favoured term) come away from the legal process bemused, angry and out of pocket. This week’s Legal Ombudsman (LeO) report makes it clear that firms that continue to be unclear or opaque about costs will be driven out by new entrants.

I sometimes wonder where these errant firms are, given that every time I write about the LeO I’m met with a stack of emails from firms complaining about a misleading picture. There is barely a firm out there that doesn’t boast on its website about being ‘client-focused’ or some other nondescript marketing term.

But somebody must not be playing by the rules, given the 90,000 complaints that come in every year to the LeO, around a quarter of which are related to costs. Of course, every firm should heed the warnings to be upfront and transparent about costs. Customers are coming for legal advice at potentially the most vulnerable or significant moment in their life and they deserve the best possible service.

But there’s something distasteful about the timing of this report. Lawyers are no strangers to a bashing from the media, but this time there are vultures circling overhead looking for stragglers. The Legal Services Act has opened the market to those that promise lower (maybe even fixed) fees and reliable service. Before the report was even out I had a response in my inbox from a supermarket chain about to enter the market, gleefully telling how ‘the Legal Ombudsman’s approach reflects our own’.

Unwittingly perhaps, Sampson is starting to emerge as the champion of these new entrants and the scourge of the traditional firm. Alongside a clutch of unfortunate clients, news outlets were happy to quote that same supermarket throughout their coverage of the report. Who needs advertising when that kind of exposure is available?

Poor service and unaccountable spiraling fees are unacceptable at all times and have offered an open goal to big players coming into the market. But at times it feels as if the LeO has beaten the defence and laid that chance on a plate.

There is little, if any, acknowledgement of the fine service still provided by the majority of lawyers, or of the thousands of firms that have never received a complaint against them (90,000 is still a small percentage given the volume of legal work in this country). Customer service is always paramount, as is a responsive complaints procedure. It is right that breaches are investigated and publicised.

But the playing field feels uneven. Sampson says traditional firms are playing into the hands of the new entrants. But is his report not having the same effect?

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