The solicitors’ representative body is on collision course with the legal complaints handler after refusing to support plans for a 20% budget increase.
The Law Society said today that the Legal Ombudsman had given little information about why it needs an extra £2.4m for 2020/21. This would increase the ombudsman’s budget to £14.8, paid for by the profession.
The Office for Legal Complaints announced in December that the increase would cover £1.2m on additional staff, £400,000 to improve feedback to the profession, and £800,000 for IT and inflation.
But in its official response the Society states that it can not support such figures, particularly when many lawyers are dissatisfied with the ombudsman’s performance.
The response states that the OLC is seeking a significant increase but ‘has not provided information about how the increase will be funded or any evidence-based explanation or assurance that this will result in a clear improvement in service delivery both to legal service users and providers’.
The ombudsman ‘needs to address' the profession's main concerns, namely delays in investigation and decision-making, unrealistic time scales for responding to correspondence, inconsistent decisions and a failure to keep service providers informed.
The Society points out that in 2017/18 and 2018/19 the OLC underspent its budget by nearly £900,000 in each year as the number of complaints accepted for investigation fell.
The proposed need for an increase in staff levels is therefore ‘difficult for us to understand’, the Society states. While the OLC expects to close more cases in 2020/21, there is no explanation for how such a figure has been calculated.
Meanwhile OLC figures suggest that staff turnover was as high as 18.5% in March 2019 and exceeded 15% for the previous two months. The Society suggests addressing this should be a priority for the service, along with reducing the backlog in cases and using existing resources to reduce delays.
The response concludes that the OLC has not provided ‘credible evidence’ to support the requested increase, and the profession has little appetite for any such change.
It adds: ‘If yet more costs are enforced on the profession, solicitors will be left with little choice but to pass them on to clients, which could further undermine access to justice, an outcome clearly at odds with the broader public interest.’
The OLC will respond once its consultation closes. The Legal Services Board will then be required to approve any budget changes and the subsequent contributions from the profession.