Solicitors will be obliged to inform clients that the Legal Complaints Service has been replaced by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), following a rule change approved by the Solicitors Regulation Authority at its board meeting today.
The SRA said it had been forced to introduce the rule change ‘under duress’, due to pressure from the Legal Services Board.
Under the new rule, which will come into force on 6 October when LeO begins its work, new clients must be told at the outset that they have a right to complain to the ombudsman. This is in line with their current obligations to inform clients of their right to complain to the LCS.
However, the rule also states that firms must inform existing clients that the complaints handling body has changed, and this should be done ‘at the next appropriate opportunity’.
The SRA will write to solicitors to give further clarification of what this means.
Board member Mark Humphries expressed concern that firms should not be obliged to write to clients solely for the purpose of notifying them of the change in complaints handling body, particularly given that some large firms have thousands of clients. Humphries suggested that an ‘appropriate time’ to send a notification letter would simply be when a complaint was made by an existing client. However, other board members suggested that writing a short letter to clients informing them of the new complaints body would not overburden the profession. The board did not reach a consensus on the issue.
Chief executive Anthony Townsend said that given the SRA’s move to outcomes-focused regulation, which will see the regulator issuing fewer prescriptive rules and placing greater responsibility on firms themselves, firms should be responsible for deciding when clients should be notified, rather than the SRA putting more detail in the rule. However, he said the SRA was currently drafting a letter which will be sent to solicitors giving guidance on the issue.
Samantha Barrass, director of the SRA’s corporate regulation project, said the SRA had not to make the change ‘at this time’, but the Legal Services Board had insisted. She said the overarching regulator had not accepted the SRA’s points that the notification of a change in the complaints handling body was unnecessary for firms with sophisticated clients or may be burdensome on the profession.