Effective communication and regular updates are key to managing clients’ expectations

When I came into post a couple of years ago now, one thing was immediately clear to me.

The change I was part of – the introduction of a new, independent system of regulation and redress – was, it is true, part of a wider move to end professional self-regulation.

But that was only part of the motivation.

In fact, the failures attributed to the old system were as much in delivery as in design.

It was immensely complex, with eight different routes for consumers to complain (depending on which branch of the profession the lawyer came from), and eight different routes of appeal (complaints about notaries theoretically ended up being dealt with by the Archbishop of Canterbury).

It was also expensive, costing the profession £32.5m a year (compared with the £19.7m my office will cost next year).

Above all, it was slow. Criticism of the Legal Complaints Service and its predecessor bodies, so prevalent at the time the Legal Services Act was passing through parliament, was not centred principally on the quality of its decision-making but its speed.

The historic failure to manage complaints in an efficient and timely manner did tremendous damage to the reputation of the profession. In complaints, as in any other area of the law, the principle holds: justice delayed is justice denied.

I say ‘historic’ advisedly. When I took up my role, I heard a lot about the inefficiency of the LCS.

My own experience has been very different. The work Deborah Evans and her colleagues did in closing out their remaining cases to time and cost is hugely creditable.

Whatever the history, I have nothing but admiration for the way that the LCS has discharged its final responsibilities.

Our challenge of managing some 100,000 contacts and 12,000 cases a year through to a successful, timely conclusion is not an easy one.

But timeliness is particularly important, since delay is the single most common issue raised in complaints about lawyers. And the impact on the consumer can be very significant. Take the following examples:

Adding insult to injury

Mr A tripped over a paving slab in the street and fell, hurting his knee badly and scarring his face.

His accident also left him feeling distressed and shaken up.

He felt that he had fallen because of the wonky paving.

So he went to a solicitor to see if they could give him advice. He’d not used a solicitor before, so he told them what happened and trusted them to keep him updated.

Mr A contacted his solicitor’s office regularly to see if he needed to do anything and find out what was happening. Over time, he realised he hadn’t heard anything from his solicitor for a long time.

He didn’t think too much about it as they said they would get in touch when they needed to.

Two and a half years passed, and Mr A received a call from his solicitor. But instead of giving him an update, Mr A was told that his file was ‘misplaced’ and, because of this, no work had been carried out on his case.

Mr A was upset and worried that he had lost his chance of seeking compensation for his injuries – instead of things being in hand, a long time had passed and he no longer had any ­evidence to support his claim.

He had taken some photos after his fall with an old mobile phone, and these were on the file. And the pavement had since been repaired by the council.

He went to a new solicitor to see what his options were. They advised that while they would try to pursue his claim, it would be very hard without the evidence that had been gathered at the time of the accident.

Mr A complained to the first firm of solicitors. They admitted that they should have kept him up to date and offered him £600 to acknowledge this.

Mr A then came to us as he didn’t feel that his first solicitor had understood the impact of losing his file on him and his case. We looked into it, and, as a result, the first firm acknowledged that the lack of work on Mr A’s case had caused him a lot of distress.

After speaking to us they offered Mr A £750 in recognition of the impact of their delays on him – and better, after some hunting, also managed to locate his file with original photographs, which would be forwarded to his new solicitor.

Mr A was happy with this outcome – he thought the first solicitor had acknowledged the impact of their actions on him, and, most of all, finding his file meant he was still able to see if he was eligible for compensation for his injuries.

Time is money

Ms B’s mother died unexpectedly after a serious illness. Her mother had made a will and it was with their trusted family solicitor, whom she went to see about the probate.

Ms B was the executor as well as a trustee and beneficiary of her mother’s will. The other beneficiary was her mother’s elderly husband, Ms B’s stepfather.

There was no dispute about the estate, as Ms B had been clear about her instructions and everyone in the family knew what to expect. But they were grieving and wanted to make sure they had everything sorted out.

Ms B’s mother’s estate was to be split into two trusts, one for the realised capital from investments and the other for property.

The income from these trusts would be paid to Ms B’s stepfather during his lifetime and any assets upon his death would go to Ms B.

Ms B found that she was regularly ringing her solicitor for progress updates and felt that things only happened with her case if she called and called.

Ms B told us that she had found it all very stressful and upsetting – she wanted things to be sorted for her stepfather; she was sad about her mother; and, more practically, she ran her own business and had lost a lot of work time chasing her solicitors.

Ms B complained to her solicitor first, asking them to explain why it had taken them over a year and a half to be even close to setting up the two trusts and why, in that time, they had only released one interim payment to her stepfather.

Ms B felt that her solicitor had only progressed as far as they had after she wrote several letters and arranged a ‘crisis meeting’.

Ms B came to us, as her complaint wasn’t resolved in-house by her solicitors.

We looked into her complaint and, as a result, the solicitor agreed to waive their fees of £1,000 plus VAT (the equivalent of three months’ work on the case), as this was the length of the overall delay we determined had occurred.

Ms B and the solicitor agreed to this, but better for Ms B was that her solicitor also agreed to finalise the probate within a specified amount of time.

A long story

Ms E lives abroad and inherited a building in England from her father. The business leasing the building was her father’s old firm – a new person had taken over on his retirement but Ms E and her family retained an interest in the business.

When the lease on the property was due to expire, the new director refused to negotiate or discuss an extension with Ms E.

Because the relationship was breaking down, Ms E instructed a solicitor to seek legal action to try and resolve the issues around the lease.

Ms E repeatedly called the firm to request progress reports. After three years of no apparent progress on her case, she made a formal complaint to the senior partner.

Ms E received no response to her complaint and, after chasing this up, she was informed it had been passed on to the solicitor who had been dealing with her case.

Ms E didn’t receive a response from the firm to her formal complaint or an update about her case, despite asking for one. The unhelpfulness of this firm led Ms E (reluctantly she tells us) to instruct new solicitors to take on her case.

To do this she asked for her file from the first firm. Ms E then asked for her file on a number of occasions but it was not sent, even though the firm confirmed that there was no money outstanding on her account.

The result of our informal investigation was that the solicitor agreed to release the file and forward it to Ms E’s newly-instructed solicitors.

They also agreed to waive any fees above £1,000.

Relationship breakdown

Ms G’s marriage was breaking down.

In early 2009, she finally went to a solicitor to seek a divorce. After speaking to the firm, she was granted legal aid for her case and the firm took it on.

Ms G didn’t hear anything for months. Then, in December 2009, her firm called to say that no progress had been made on her case until recently because the firm had been waiting for her to have been married for over a year.

The problem was that her legal aid had run out before the work had been completed.

Her solicitor told Ms G that she would need to reapply before they could continue to represent her – or she would need to pay the fees herself.

Ms G told us this came as a real shock – she had tried to seek updates, and she thought that things were in hand as she had received a grant that would cover her costs.

She made a formal complaint to the firm saying that she didn’t understand the delay, that her solicitor hadn’t explained the full details of the grant of funding, and that he had failed to carry out any work on her divorce while she had had funding available.

When she came to us, Ms G was still unhappy. Her concerns hadn’t been addressed and she told us that she felt that the firm insinuated that she was complaining to avoid paying their costs, which upset her more.

During our investigation, we suggested that Ms G and her solicitor meet to try to address her concerns informally.

During the meeting, a detailed explanation of the firm’s charges was provided, Ms G was given an apology and the firm agreed to progress her case without further delay. Ms G was happy with this result and requested that her complaint be withdrawn.

Our golden rule?

So what are the lessons for solicitors wanting to avoid conflict with their clients? The golden rule appears to be communication.

Set out at the beginning how long you expect the matter to last and keep your client regularly updated about progress.

Consumer expectations about how long legal services take do not, on the whole, seem to be unrealistic: they accept that legal work is complex and subject to delay.

What alienates them, however, is to be left dangling without explanation. That is particularly the case given that legal work rarely happens in isolation in clients’ lives.

People waiting for a house purchase literally cannot move until it is sorted out; many people going through a divorce are in a similar position. Beneficiaries of wills often have plans for the money.

There are many other things dependent on your completion of the work. If there is a delay, speak to the client and try to address issues at the time they arise; most complaints we see could be avoided really easily.

Finally, try to resolve any complaint quickly. Over three-quarters of the cases we have investigated thus far (including all four above) were resolved informally.

One of the key determinants of whether the Legal Ombudsman will be quicker than our predecessor bodies is how far we can continue to offer speedy, informal resolution of complaints.

If lawyers prove reluctant to settle informally, the result will be additional delay and cost to you and to your clients. To that extent, how far we can improve on what went before is largely in your hands.