Complainants to the Bar Standards Board have accused the regulator of bias in favour of barristers as dissatisfaction grows about transparency and openness.
The BSB’s yearly healthcheck survey found increasing public unease about its complaints process, despite the number of complaints falling in the past year.
At the board’s monthly meeting last week, BSB chair Lady Deech warned legal aid cuts would create an ‘ever increasing tide’ of litigants in person, which will affect the type of complaints made.
The BSB’s annual user feedback survey showed four out of five barristers come away with a positive perception of the BSB and its complaints-handling service, while for complainants the figure is nearer two out of five.
The proportion of complainants dissatisfied with the service they received increased over the last year and 54% of respondents strongly disagreed that the complaints process is ‘open and fair’, compared with 39% in 2011.
Barristers were generally satisfied with the service; their main criticism was the time it took to reach a final decision on the complaint against them.
More than half of complainants agreed that making a complaint to the BSB was easy, although 26% disagreed, and 72% of barristers agreed that the information was easy to obtain.
Overall 79% of barristers rated their experience of the BSB’s staff as good or excellent, whereas complainants’ ratings were lower – 45% gave a positive rating and 36% rated the staff as poor or very poor, although the majority (80%) found them to be polite.
Overall, 36% of complainants and 77% of barristers were either satisfied or very satisfied with the way in which the BSB handled their complaint.
The report said the findings were ‘disappointing’ and ‘show a widening gap between the views of barristers and complainants’.
While many barristers think the BSB should do more to root out unmeritorious complaints, ‘many’ complainants feel the BSB is biased towards barristers, seeking to ‘protect its own’, said the report.
It said the drop in satisfaction rates in some areas was ‘inexplicable’ and claimed there was a strong correlation between those complainants who consider its processes to be unfair and those whose complaints were dismissed.
The report recommended that the board commissions qualitative research into user experiences in early 2014/5, suggesting this would cost £15,000 to £20,000.
A separate report showed that the BSB opened 492 complaints in 2012/13, a 22% fall compared with the previous year’s 628. Of those 316 were from external sources and 175 raised internally by the BSB.
It noted that during the year, the Legal Ombudsman received 632 cases relating to barristers, compared with 526 in the previous year – a rise of 20% - 50 of which were referred to the BSB.
Complaints from solicitors rose almost 50% from 25 to 36. They covered discreditable conduct, allegations of misleading the court and rudeness or misbehaviour in court.
There were 65 complaints from litigants in person (LiPs), which accounted for 21% of all external complaints – slightly lower than the 80 complaints received last year, but still a ‘significant increase’ compared with previous years.
The report predicted the BSB will continue to receive high numbers of complaints from LiPs in 2013/14 as the number of people representing themselves increases due to cuts in legal aid.