The legal ombudsman wants to draft in agency staff to plug a persisting backlog in unresolved complaints - as well as an end to the office's pay freeze.
In a consultation on its business plan for the 2022/23 year, the complaints handler revealed that the pool of cases yet even to be investigated stood at 5,677 by the end of September, 9% more than had been forecast at the start of this year.
The scale of the backlog was larger than the entire output of the organisation in 2020/21 and remains a ‘critical factor’ after several difficult years. The unopened caseload remains at an ‘unacceptably high level’ and will still be substantial in three years without urgent reform.
The ombudsman said that ‘significant progress’ had been made in stabilising the organisation and fulfilling commitments, with a 30% year-on-year increase in case closures and 392 cases resolved without the need for investigation. Investigation times were 10% quicker overall across all case complexities.
But the issues facing the ombudsman continue to mount and in some aspects get worse. Demand grew by 23% between 2019/20 and 2020/21 and stayed at similar levels in the first half of this year, while the loss of key staff has undermined the ability to reach business plan targets. Since the start of this year the ombudsman has been around 20% below established investigator numbers and was 16 short of what was required by September – despite more than 50 people joining the organisation.
Chief ombudsman Paul McFadden said: ‘If we continue to work within the current parameters and restrictions our initiatives and improvement plans alone will not clear the inherited backlog by the end of 2023/24. To shorten the journey to an acceptable position we must therefore think even more radically and look at the best ways to overcome these challenges, both internally and within the environment we operate within. The restrictions on the scheme need to be openly acknowledged, addressed and removed.’
The proposed solution is primary legislation to amend the Legal Services Act and give the ombudsman the freedom to contract out some of its workload through agency or temporary staff. The 'challenges' of staff salaries being frozen also need to be addressed.
The consultation states: ‘In 2022/23 it will be essential that the legal ombudsman has the ability to outsource delivery of its services. To do so will require a change to primary legislation. Over the remainder of 2021/22 consideration is being given to the feasibility of outsourcing any aspect of the operational process to a third-party external complaint resolution provider.' The plan notes that 'consideration would need to be given to how quality and service standards would be maintained and assured'.
The ombudsman proposes two options for a budget increase: by 3.8% or 5.1%.
Consultation on the business plan closes on 13 December.