Public spending watchdogs have once again raised concerns about payments to senior figures at the legal complaints body.
Long-awaited annual accounts for 2014-15, published by the National Audit Office (NAO) yesterday, are qualified on the grounds that ‘novel and contentious’ payments to senior staff have not been approved by the Ministry of Justice.
This is the second year in a row in which auditors have qualified the accounts of the Office for Legal Complaints. Last year’s accounts were qualified on the basis of what the NAO called irregular expenditure totalling £22,300. This related to expenses claimed by the first chief legal ombudsman, Adam Sampson, who parted company with the office in November 2014.
In the latest accounts, a certifying statement by Sir Amyas Morse, comptroller and auditor general, says that in 2014-15 the office ‘made payments in respect of a remuneration scheme for senior staff... which I consider to be novel and contentious. I have concluded that this expenditure is not in conformity with the authorities which govern it and is, therefore, irregular’.
The report’s governance statement says that the office is required to continue these payments under ‘contractual commitments to its employees’.
Introducing the report, Steve Green (pictured), chair of the Office for Legal Complaints, admits that: ‘Disappointingly, the 2014-15 business year has been dominated by the need to resolve a range of difficult internal issues. These issues largely relate to or derive from some of the many decisions taken at the time that the Legal Ombudsman was being set up in 2010 but which only came to light in early 2014.’
However he says: ‘I am confident that we are now well on the way to bringing these issues to a resolution. In spite of these internal challenges the Legal Ombudsman has continued to deliver a consistently effective service while significantly driving down its costs.’
Kathryn King, interim chief ombudsman, reported that efficiency measures have cut the cost of the office’s legal jurisdiction from £16m in 2013-14 to just over £12m next year.