The legal complaints handler will take a ‘flexible and common sense’ approach to accepting cases and progressing investigations in the coming disrupted months.
The Legal Ombudsman said this week it does not have the power to make short-term changes to the scheme’s rules, but it can use discretion over how complaints are handled by solicitor firms during the Covid-19 crisis.
In practice, that means firms will still be required to respond to first-tier complaints within eight weeks, but the ombudsman will take into consideration whether any delay was as a result of the lockdown.
Service providers are expected to be open and honest with clients, explaining the challenges they are facing and the reasons why it is taking longer than usual to respond to complaints. Lawyers should keep clear notes to evidence any delays and if the business has closed, this should be communicated with clients.
The ombudsman said: ‘We will look at how well you kept the client informed about what was happening when and why, as well as your assessment and acknowledgement of any impact this has on them – particularly for vulnerable people or urgent matters.’
In terms of its own work, the ombudsman says it is currently able to maintain a ‘reasonable’ level of service and will, where it is possible, continue to progress complaints.
While complainants can bring a complaint to the ombudsman after eight weeks, they are being warned there may be delays before it will be investigated. If possible, the advice is for clients and firms to seek to resolves disputes between themselves.
For full-scale investigations, the ombudsman said it will respond ‘flexibly’ to requests from firms for extra time to gather evidence and respond to questions, and lawyers are urged to be open about any challenges they may be facing as a result of the crisis.
The ombudsman may take the unusual step of suspending investigations if all parties find it difficult to engage at the moment.
There is acknowledgement that certain areas of law, such as conveyancing and litigation, may be more affected than others by the virus situation. The ombudsman said its scheme rules include giving consideration to what was good practice at the time of the matter being complained about. Clients should be kept informed about how their legal matter is being handled, including whether lawyers are working from home and the limitations that come with that.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.