Third parties should be able to complain about lawyers to the Legal Ombudsman, the Legal Services Consumer Panel has suggested.

It proposes creating a general right for third parties - those which are not a lawyer’s client - to complain, except in situations where it would ‘impair the proper pursuit and administration of justice’. Responding to a consultation on the LeO’s complaints scheme, the panel says the current rules are ‘too crude’ and prevent legitimate complaints being considered from almost all third parties.

It says there are ‘many situations’ where it is not just the lawyer’s own client who is affected, which can involve significant financial and personal consequences for those involved.

The panel suggests that third parties should have a right of redress in the following scenarios:

  • Where legal work is intended to benefit consumers, but they are treated as third parties due to the nature of the contract or business structure, for example a remortgage when the legal work is arranged by the lender, and sub-contracting arrangements by unregulated businesses;
  • Hounding tactics by lawyers acting on behalf of corporate clients;
  • Bad treatment of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system;
  • Non-contentious matters where both the client and third party lose out, e.g. a delay in a conveyancing transaction because the seller’s lawyer loses some paperwork causing detriment to the buyer (a third party);
  • Personal information is compromised due to a data security breach;
  • Beneficiaries when they experience problems due to a defective will; and
  • Lawyers working on matters concerning groups of people where the work is arranged by another party on their behalf or in their name, such as leaseholders or unsecured creditors.
The panel’s paper states: ‘The current absence of this right to redress frustrates the intention of a contractual relationship with businesses on which consumers rely in good faith, and creates the possibility of lawyers falling outside the Legal Ombudsman’s jurisdiction by entering into complex business arrangements.’

It says lack of access to redress creates weak incentives for fair dealing and ethical behaviour, limits opportunities to learn the lessons from complaints, and frustrates government policy to promote alternative dispute resolution. Giving third parties a right of redress, it says, would bring the LeO in line with procedures adopted in other sectors, such as financial services, surveying, estate agency and utilities.

Commenting on the paper, panel chair Elisabeth Davies said: ‘If you’ve experienced poor legal services and suffered detriment then you should be able to obtain a remedy.

‘It’s wrong that some consumers cannot currently complain to the Legal Ombudsman due to technicalities which they don’t even know about.’

Davies said: ‘While in some situations the case for giving third parties the right to complain is clear cut, in other circumstances, such as the treatment of victims and witnesses, the arguments are more finely balanced.’

The full report can be found on the panel's website.