Lawyers could face new demands to inform clients about how to complain amid concerns that too many consumers are still in the dark about where to turn.
Oversight regulator the Legal Services Board said this week it wants to look again at guidelines dating from 2010 outlining what regulators should expect of lawyers in terms of notifying clients about their rights of redress.
The fresh approach could see the Solicitors Regulation Authority make additional demands of solicitors about how and when they highlight clients’ rights to complain.
Research has shown in the past that just a quarter of those clients unhappy with their service were informed of first and second-tier complaints-handling procedures.
The LSB says current rules are largely still fit for purpose, but regulators can offer more support to lawyers in first-tier (for example, in-house) complaints-handling, notification and signposting.
The oversight regulator proposes that the SRA and other approved regulators ‘should set clear, concise guidance’ for lawyers to help them with complaints-handling and signposting.
‘This should reflect current best practice for communicating with clients, including client care letters,’ said the LSB.
‘Approved regulators should satisfy themselves that authorised persons understand and are effectively delivering those arrangements.’
The LSB’s guidance, which is subject to an eight-week consultation, states that regulators should ensure lawyers’ complaint-handling processes ‘must be convenient and easy to use’, as well as ‘transparent and clear in relation to the process, well publicised and free’.
Regulators should make sure lawyers provide sufficient information to all consumers to enable them to identify whether they do have a right to take their complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.
At present, regulators require all lawyers to notify clients in writing at the time of engagement of their right to complain and how this can be done. At the conclusion of the first-tier complaint process clients must be informed about the option of taking their complaint to the ombudsman.
But the LSB said the outcomes required of lawyers are ‘some way from being achieved’, with low consumer awareness of the LeO indicating current requirements do not reflect consumers’ needs.
Successive ombudsman satisfaction surveys have shown fewer than a quarter of clients heard about the service through their lawyer. The LSB’s legal services benchmarking survey in 2012 found 26% of clients, at most, were told by their lawyer about complaint procedures.
Neil Buckley, chief executive of the LSB, said: ‘Improving complaints-handling was one of the LSB’s three main priorities at its inception. However, evidence collected since 2010 suggests that, while the outcomes specified by the LSB in this area are still relevant and uncontentious, they have not yet been fully achieved; further action is needed.
‘Through this consultation, the LSB wants to understand if it can help regulators better support lawyers in meeting their regulatory duties for first-tier complaints-handling to improve outcomes for consumers.’