It’s coming to something when the best you can say about an organisation is: ‘at least there’s no expenses scandal’. True, the Legal Ombudsman seems to have put its financial problems behind it – but its latest annual report has little else to cheer about. 

John Hyde

John Hyde

Indeed, the performance is so bad that if a law firm performed similarly it might merit an investigation by the, er, Legal Ombudsman. Which would no doubt be delayed.

The bare facts are these: the ombudsman disposed of fewer cases in 2017/18 and took longer doing so. Its target of resolving 60% of cases within 90 days was missed. April 2017’s 49% turned out to be a high point: performance dropped steadily and by March this year just 9% of cases were resolved within 90 days.

In other words, 91% of complainants and lawyers waited more than three months to get some closure. Already disgruntled clients had their faith in the legal profession further eroded, while firms had to work on with a cloud hanging over them.

The excuses were proper ‘dog ate homework’ stuff: staff turnover and high levels of sickness were among the factors hampering operational resources. Never mind the year ended with exactly the same number of staff (222) as in 2017, while just 4% of days were lost to sickness (a figure which actually fell year-on-year).

I wonder whether the ombudsman would be so forgiving if firms offered similar excuses.

Look for an apology in any of the accompanying leaders’ statements and you’ll definitely be waiting more than 90 days. Instead, the chief ombudsman is simply moving the goalposts, announcing that key performance indicators will be altered to make them more ‘realistic’ (code for easier).

The greatest frustration is that nothing seems to be getting done about it. LeO had budgeted to spend £11.8m in the year but ended up spending £10.92m. If cases are increasing in complexity and volume, why not spend more in dealing with them? If turnover of staff is so high, perhaps pay them more?

There is, of course, an oversight regulator: the Legal Services Board. At the time of writing we had yet to hear any criticism of LeO’s performance or demands to improve.

Like a traffic warden parking on a double yellow line to issue tickets to other motorists, LeO has a credibility problem. How can it admonish a firm for delays when its own house burns in the background?