Nearly a year into the life of the Legal Ombudsman and we have seen thousands of cases. These cases are not quite as we thought they would be when we started - nothing in our modelling ­prepared us for family law overtaking conveyancing as the most complained about area of law, for example.

While this is an unpredicted change, it reveals an underlying truth. The dynamic nature of the legal services market - the dynamic nature of the wider economy in which we operate - may produce individual and unexpected shifts. But the underlying nature of the issues which affect lawyers and their clients remain much the same as they always were. Those changes are ones which our processes can accommodate reasonably easily.

However, there are other areas which are more difficult. One of the most obvious ones is enforcement. One of the most significant differences between the LeO and our predecessor bodies is that we own our existence to an act of parliament - an act which invests us with statutory authority.

The Legal Complaints Service, for example, had only one recourse when faced with a lawyer who was unwilling to provide it with information or comply with a decision: report the lawyer to the Solicitors Regulation Authority and wait for it to take action. The Legal Services Act gave us our own powers: we do not have to wait for anyone else to act; we can do so ourselves.But when should we?

When we set up, we spent some time on what we thought was a fairly unimportant question - this seemed the proportionate approach. Our focus in the early days was on the front end of our processes, on making sure our phone lines and computer systems were capable of handling some 100,000 contacts, that our staff were trained and ready to start the 10,000 or so investigations.

And we were confident that the mere existence of our statutory powers would be sufficient to ensure co-operation. We understood that some complainants, convinced of the rightness of their cause and unwilling to take no for an answer, might create difficulties, but we could deal with these easily enough without recourse to law. Why should we bother about the theoretical possibility that a lawyer would be foolish enough to refuse to engage?

But we were wrong. And more than once. So we have had to move quickly to set up an enforcement team, which has, I regret to say, been busy.

Tenant trouble

When Mrs L got back from a prolonged absence overseas she had difficulties evicting the tenant who had been renting her family home while she was away. She was forced to live in one of her other rented properties, losing valuable rental income. At the same time, another tenant in a different property was causing problems and Mrs L wanted them out as well. So she went to a solicitor to get help removing both tenants.

The first tenant had already been served a possession notice, which the tenant had ignored. The solicitor was therefore asked to return the matter to court, but they didn’t do anything about it.

The firm also issued a claim to get the tenant out of the second property, against which the tenant filed a defence.

But the solicitor did not follow this up either, failing to respond to the statement or the court. Both cases dragged on for months, during which time Mrs L was left more or less in the dark, with no idea what was happening with either matter. Although she eventually complained to the firm, its response was unacceptable, so Mrs L brought her concerns to us.

After a detailed investigation, we found that the firm had indeed provided poor service. But attempts to get both sides to agree a remedy faltered, so the case was referred to the ombudsman for a decision. The ombudsman decided - and Mrs L accepted - that the solicitors should refund her fees, pay the costs of re-serving notices on both properties, pay four months’ lost rental income on the property Mrs L had been forced to occupy while waiting to get back into her own home, and compensate her for the distress and inconvenience caused. The total package was worth almost £6,000.

The decision was binding and final. As with all ombudsman decisions requiring a remedy, the firm was given 10 working days to comply. But it did not. We referred its potential misconduct to the approved regulator and also, with Mrs L’s permission, got the LeO enforcement team - our lawyers - involved.

In a last-ditch attempt to settle the matter before going to court, the team wrote to the solicitors to make it clear that non-compliance would be referred to the court. The firm still failed to comply. So we issued proceedings against it that would, in effect, make our ombudsman’s decision an order of court. This would compel the firm to comply with its terms.

Two days before the hearing, the firm contacted our legal team to settle the matter, giving an undertaking to comply with our ombudsman’s decision in full. It also agreed to pay our legal costs in bringing proceedings, totalling £1,000.

Cash on account

Mr T’s business relied in part on ­buying property leases and he needed the help of solicitors in managing the various transactions involved. He paid the solicitors employed to do this work £2,500 on account, making it clear that the firm was not to release any of these funds without his express permission.

However, when one of the vendors with whom Mr T was in negotiations asked for the cash up front, the firm went ahead and released it - without checking back with the client. The deal collapsed and this left Mr T unable to get his money back.

Understandably cross with the firm and anxious about what had happened to his money, Mr T complained to his solicitors. But the firm failed to respond, so Mr T complained to us.

Having found poor service, an ombudsman’s decision was eventually needed to resolve the issue. Mr T accepted this, which made the decision final and binding on the firm. The ombudsman decided that the firm should pay £2,500 to compensate Mr T for the money it had paid over without his agreement, plus interest, and also pay him £150 to compensate for the firm’s failure to deal with the matter in line with its internal complaints procedure.

Similarly to Mrs L’s case, where ombudsman decisions require a remedy, this firm was also given 10 working days to comply. But the solicitors in this case did not meet this timetable. Again, we referred its potential misconduct to the approved regulator and also, with Mr T’s permission, got our enforcement team involved.

The same process then ensued - our team wrote to the solicitors to make it clear that non-compliance would be referred to the court. When the firm failed to comply, as had happened in the previous case study, we issued proceedings against it that would, in effect, make our ombudsman decision an order of court. As in Mrs L’s case, we wanted the solicitors to meet our ombudsman decision, and a court order would compel the firm to comply with its terms.

In this case, our enforcement team contacted the firm by telephone to discuss the matter further. The result of our lawyer getting involved was that, at this late stage, the firm paid Mr T the money he was due. But this did not deal with the costs of the court case we had been forced to start, although we asked it to meet these costs as well. At the subsequent court hearing the judge ordered the firm to pay us a further £1,215 for the extra cost we had been forced to incur in bringing the court case.

Order for arrest

Mr and Mrs N complained that their lawyer had not taken their concerns about aspects of his work for them seriously. The firm had been taken on to help with two separate matters - an employment tribunal and a mortgage insurance issue.

In October 2010, we contacted the couple’s solicitor with the first of what turned out to be numerous requests for documents and information relating to the case. After a full seven months of trying, but failing, to get a response (by letter, email, phone and, finally, a formal notice), we decided to take enforcement action against him.

The court first tried to deal with the case in May, but the solicitor failed to attend. So the judge ordered his arrest. The solicitor surrendered to the court a few days later, where a date was set for a formal hearing. At that hearing, the solicitor promised the High Court he would co-operate with our investigation into the complaint against him and said he understood that he risked being punished unless he did so.

The judge told him it was ‘absolutely essential’ he communicated with the ombudsman and co-operated to a high professional standard. Failure, the judge said, was ‘likely to attract the sanction of the court’.

The lawyer duly gave an undertaking to do everything he could to help find the files we needed. He promised to co-operate with our investigation into the original complaint against him (as well as any others that may arise), and to keep us updated with his contact details. He was also ordered to pay the LeO’s costs at that point, which amounted to just over £11,000.

At the time of writing, we are still waiting for the information needed to resolve this case. But another court date has been set.

So, while it is ­disappointing to have gone to these lengths, there is an end in sight for Mr and Mrs N.

The sad thing about all these cases is that action could so easily have been avoided. The time and expense these firms have expended in dealing with our enforcement action far outweighs the costs they would have incurred had they responded to us in the first place. And since it is the profession which funds my office, it is the profession which had to fund the action we took against these firms in the first place. It is truly a lose-lose situation for the lawyers.

We do not take any pride in having had to exercise our statutory powers. As I said, it was not something I envisaged I would have to do when I took the job. And taking lawyers to court was foreign to the whole philosophy of our scheme. We have been keen throughout the set up and now the operation of the organisation to emphasise that the LeO is a resource for both complainants and lawyers. Our job is to resolve problems, not exacerbate them; to take disputes out of court, not create more work for the courts.

But the scheme is part of a wider process of reform and improvement. Among the regulatory purposes set out in the Legal Services Act were the objectives of supporting the rule of law and promoting adherence to professional principles. Letting individual lawyers flout their responsibilities to their clients and the wider legal community is hardly consistent with those objectives.

We are not in the blame game, and we leave questions of punishment to your professional peers. But we will be strong in making sure that we uphold the boundaries of the scheme we have been asked to set up and run, even if that means we have to act in a way we would normally hope to avoid.

A monthly column featuring practical advice and anonymised case ­studies from chief ombudsman Adam Sampson and his team