A recent Legal Services Board survey found that more than half of sole practitioners believed their practising certificate fee represented poor value for money.
And, while most large firms did not consider the costs of regulation to be unreasonable, the report also found that many people do not know what they get for their fee, including that it helps to fund the Legal Ombudsman.
The LeO – which also receives funding via case fees, and, for the claims management companies jurisdiction, from the Ministry of Justice – takes seriously its responsibility to use the money we receive efficiently, effectively and for maximum impact. Although less than one-fifth of the practising fee comes to us, we use it to provide a range of services that are valued for the practical, material difference we make to individual practitioners – as well as for the consumer confidence we provide.
A central part of our role is, naturally, to operate an independent ombudsman scheme. Our service gives consumers confidence that if they use a regulated lawyer, they will have access to a robust right of redress if things go wrong.
Last year we helped to resolve 8,000 complaints between consumers and providers of legal services. These covered a wide range of areas of law, including conveyancing, family law, and wills and probate; and a diversity of problems, from concerns about costs to failures to follow instructions.
Our investigators and ombudsmen seek a fair resolution in every case, acting impartially, cutting through complexity and analysing the facts to resolve disputes. Throughout the complaints process we understand that behind each case is a person trying to solve a problem. We provide timely, evidence-based information to ensure complainants and providers accept and understand our final decision, even if they do not agree with it.
Our involvement also helps to prevent complaints from going to court, saving both legal services providers and their clients time and money. Lawyers and consumers both tell us that they value this service: in 2013/14, lawyer satisfaction was more than 80%.
And we are doing more for less every year. By making changes to improve our efficiency, we have already cut our costs substantially, from £17m in 2011/12, to a forecast below £14m for 2014/15. We will continue to drive this downward trajectory, while maintaining quality and providing value to the sectors we serve.
Getting these basics right enables us to do more.
Creating an improved legal complaints system and sharing what we have learned
The knowledge and experience we gain from each individual case gives us the strength to generate thought leadership, and to work with a broad range of stakeholders to champion best practice and improve standards across the industry for the benefit of consumers, service providers, and in the interests of business and society.
Last year we produced three major focus reports. These examined the key issues we have seen in complaints regarding stamp duty payments, ‘no win, no fee’ services, and wills and probate practices. They included detailed analyses of the types of complaint we see, what causes them, and guidance on how they can be prevented – or quickly resolved – in future.
Building on our focus reports, we have developed a programme of professional development courses tailored to empower practitioners to improve their own and their firms’ complaints-handling. Research suggests that good first-tier complaints-handling could increase a firm’s operating profits by 2%-3% each year. At industry level, that could equate to net benefits of up to £80m over a 10-year period.
Our courses are well received. Attendees tell us they find them practical and useful: ‘Attending the course gave us the confidence to review our complaints-handling process. It was helpful to find out that our approach in areas such as providing remedies for a complaint was in the right ball park.’
We also undertake external research, provide guidance on good complaints-handling and publish quarterly decision data. But it does not stop there. In 2015/16, we will focus on further developing our analysis and insight capabilities to maximise the insight we generate from our own cases, and from other sources of research, knowledge and data.
We are reviewing our policy on publishing ombudsman decisions to ensure that it is helping to drive positive behaviour across the sector and is effective in informing consumers. And we will provide an enhanced learning and information programme to help raise standards across the legal sector, promote equality and build capacity to deal with complaints effectively.
To find out more about what we can do for you, look at our website: www.legalombudsman.org.uk/raising-standards. It contains information about how we can help through our publications and professional learning, data and development, and, of course, dispute resolution.
Kathryn King is interim chief legal ombudsman