Despite hysterical ‘end of the world’ concerns about fiscal cliffs and apocalyptic Mayan calendars, it seems we all managed to see out Christmas without too much controversy.
But much as I was relieved not to meet my doom on 21 December, the joy was short-lived – it meant I would still need to finish writing the next strategy and business plan after all. And having tried to predict the effect of various factors and variables in planning our operations, I now have some sympathy for the Mayans.
The likely knock-on effects of economic, political, technological and jurisdictional factors on how our business will operate in the next three years are impossible to predict with any certainty. For instance, with no solid alternatives to legal aid in the offing it will be interesting to see how the market responds to the emerging needs of consumers. When the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act takes effect in April there will suddenly be a large gap in funding for those with low to medium incomes.
And as housing sales continue to flag, it is hard to see any signs of recovery in the conveyancing market. This will inevitably continue to affect complaint levels – as we reported in our most recent thematic report into residential conveyancing complaints in December.
The result of both these things – along with the entry of more large high street brands into the legal services market – will almost certainly be a continuing shift in how services are provided. Presumably it will mean more online and automated services, more fixed-price and ‘no win, no fee’ pricing models, and more bundled services as financial and legal products merge.
Throw in changes to our jurisdiction with the arrival of complaints about claims management companies and what we have is an operational cocktail, full of possibilities, to consider. Nevertheless, we want to meet these challenges head on – as with our previous strategies – to continue delivering our vision ‘that everyone can access legal services in which they have confidence’.
But our business planning is not just about predicting the evolution of the legal market. We also want to ensure that the ombudsman remains lean and efficient. For instance, we will continue with our aim to reduce the number of cases going to formal ombudsman decision, however hard this may be. Given the emotions involved it is often difficult to predict whether informal resolution is possible in individual cases.
We will also do everything we can to continue exceeding our aim of resolving at least 50% of cases within three months. This is despite a probable increase in the number of full investigations we will carry out now that the new scheme rules have come into play.
And I want to keep an open mind as far as our future role is concerned. Such is the scope of the concept ‘legal service’, we are frequently linked with jurisdictions over a number of individuals and organisations which are currently exploiting gaps in regulation. For instance, we were recently included in a House of Lords proposal for improved consumer protection against bailiffs, which came as something of a surprise, particularly as we have not sought to have bailiffs brought under our jurisdiction. It was also interesting to note that there are a number of issues around the framework of the proposed amendment.
A bit closer to home, we know there are ‘professionals’ offering employment advice, and will-writing and probate services, who are operating outside the regulated domain. There are also people receiving immigration advice and services from non-lawyers who, although regulated, are not covered by an ombudsman scheme. Their customers have little protection should the service be sub-standard. We have seen a number of cases where people have received duff advice, had issues over costs and where documentation was not worth the paper it was written on – but under current arrangements people have nowhere to turn. So, in principle, we are open to the possibility of extending our jurisdiction wherever the Legal Services Act allows it, and where we believe the legal sector and its customers will benefit.
While there are people operating outside regulatory circles, everybody’s reputation may suffer, not to mention the suffering of customers unaware of the complexities around who or what you can complain about, as the following case studies show.
Ms A was a non-UK resident living in England after coming here to study. She used a firm claiming to be an immigration advice specialist to help obtain a visa extension to stay in the UK. Ms A chose the company because of its proximity to where she lived at the time, as she anticipated making a number of appointments during the application process.
Unfortunately, the company’s service was not up to scratch. It took payment from Ms A and put together an initial application document, but then she did not hear from the company for weeks. When she did finally get a response – after visiting the company’s premises – she discovered that the application had failed because it was missing important information. The company had also lost some personal documents ofMs A’s.
After complaining to the company and getting nowhere, Ms A contacted Citizens Advice and then the Legal Ombudsman to see if we could help. However, after looking into the matter it became apparent that the officer dealing with her application was not a legally authorised person. Unfortunately we could not help Ms A and she lost her money.
Mr B engaged a firm to represent him in an unfair dismissal claim. Employment law is complex and Mr B relied heavily on the advice he was given by the firm. However, it became clear to Mr B as the case progressed that the firm had not properly advised him about limits in bringing a tribunal claim. They had met on several occasions and wrote to Mr B with information on his claim but failed to mention time considerations on each occasion.
It was clear that the firm had failed Mr B when his former employer pointed out the issues around time limits, subsequently winning the tribunal. In his pre-hearing review, a judge confirmed that the representation and advice that Mr B had received was well below standard and that the firm had failed him. He confirmed that Mr B had presented evidence to the firm correctly but the firm’s failure to grasp the correct time limit meant that the claim was brought three months late.
After failing to get anywhere with his complaint to the firm, Mr B brought it to the Legal Ombudsman. We looked at it but realised the ‘legal advice’ had been given by a lay member of what was essentially a charity, not an authorised person. We were unable to assist Mr B in getting his complaint resolved.
Mrs C was suffering with a degenerative illness that was progressively worsening. To protect her assets, she instructed a will-writing company to produce a lasting power of attorney (LPA). Unfortunately, when Mrs C saw the final documentation she noticed four major errors. However, the company had already registered the LPA. Mrs C was extremely cross since the company did not give her an opportunity to review the LPA before it was sent off.
When Mrs C brought her complaint to us we discovered that the company was unregulated and therefore outside our jurisdiction. Though we sympathised with Mrs C’s situation, we simply could not get involved.
In cases like these it is tantamount to having one hand tied behind your back. Here are people in desperate need of legal advice at critical moments in their lives and it is all going horribly wrong. An issue around regulation, which frankly not many customers will have any idea about, means these people cannot get any form of redress, whereas someone in exactly the same situation using an authorised person can.
There is a debate to be had about whether unregulated bodies should be able to practise at all – and the Legal Services Board is currently looking into this issue. Certainly, the good work of lawyers could be undermined by legal advisers without any necessary authorisation or qualifications. Equally, there is a matter of choice for consumers and it is not to say all unregulated legal service providers are doing a bad job. However, things inevitably do go wrong from time to time in all businesses and professions, and it seems only right that consumers have a safety net.
Over the lifetime of the next strategy, we predict that around a quarter of a million people will contact the Legal Ombudsman. The importance of getting our strategy right, and ensuring we offer a service that will improve standards within the legal sector, cannot be overstated. This is why the strategy and business plan for the next financial year is now out for consultation. Please take a look and, if you have an opinion on what we are proposing, make it count.
Many speculations around the alleged Mayan prophesy saw 21 December not as the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning. For some, we are entering an age of transition for all humanity. I cannot speak with any authority on this, but I can say that 2013 certainly heralds an age of transition for the legal sector. I only hope our predictions effectively prepare the ombudsman for the coming challenges.
Adam Sampson is chief ombudsman