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Rough Justice for clients as new complaints commission refuses to investigate cases mishandled by Law Society

24 Jun

Amazingly or not, the work of watering down the intentions of the Legal Profession & Legal Aid Act (2007) goes on.

The latest salvo fired by the legal profession against clients takes the form of rigid conditions imposed by the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, itself now mostly staffed by employees of the Law Society of Scotland who have transferred over to the new ‘independent’ regulator .. which has now definitely lost the tag of ‘independence’ by any measure of the word.

As reporter in last week’s article but now confirmed, the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has now categorically stated that it will refuse to handle any complaints regarding any legal work instructed prior to 1st October 2008, the date the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission begins its work as regulator of ‘service’ complaints against Scotland’s 10,500 solicitors.

This may spell disaster for clients whose complaints are now caught in this tricky period, where it is rumoured, the Law Society are binning complaints against lawyers at an alarming rate before the new Commission takes effect, dishing out infinite measures of ‘rough justice’ to clients who have fell victim to crooked members of the legal profession.

The SLCC has also decided, after apparently receiving ‘counsel’s opinion’ on complaints handling, that it will refuse to examine historical cases of complaint mishandled by the Law Society of Scotland. A small reminder to readers that ‘Counsel’ would of course, be a member of the Law Society of Scotland ! – so it’s hardly surprising the Law Society would want its old mishandled cases re-examined by the new complaints body.

Being unable to examine cases of the past, may not be such a bad thing though, as the SLCC itself is staffed by many members of the Law Society of Scotland who have performed questionably on complaints against solicitors in the past – and I doubt they would be so willing to reexamine their own work and find against how poorly they had treated clients beforehand while working at the Law Society.

The Law Society of Scotland are of course, very happy about these two policy decisions. It was the Law Society who asked for it, and they have got it. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, it was always the goal of the Law Society to ensure the new Commission was ‘brought to heal’ like an errant puppy, and it has certainly achieved that by populating the new Commission with its staff and lay committee members.

After all, the legal profession is to pay for the new Complaints Commission, so they will definitely want a say in how that money is spent, while ensuring continued control of the regulatory process via former staff from the Law Society who will no doubt continue in the vein they have become accustomed to.

Jane Irvine, the new Chairman of the SLCC confirmed in a statement the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission won’t be looking into complaints prior to work instructed before the first of October 2008.

Jane Irvine : “The simple fact is the SLCC’s powers to award redress, particularly compensation, would be as limited as those of the Law Society if we re-opened old cases. We wished therefore to avoid re-opening old cases where we could have little effect and instead would probably simply inconvenience parties by taking them through our investigation system. The SLCC will therefore focus on work instructed after 1-10-08”

I have to say, on the whole, I agree with Jane Irvine that the SLCC is not a safe venue to reexamine old cases where the Law Society of Scotland deliberately or incompetently mishandled complaints against solicitors.

We can’t have the same people who worked for the Law Society and may have worked on many of these mishandled complaints, re examine their own work now they are based at the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. It simply is not on at all. How on earth could they be trusted to come up with an impartial view of their own work or that of their colleagues ? Simply not possible in the real world … and it would only malign the name of the SLCC further.

There is no doubt that old cases must be reopened – there are many to consider, where the Law Society has let crooked lawyers off the hook but a new body must be created to do that, if only for that task, as I pointed out in my Petition PE1033.

You can read about my ideas for re examining historical cases of injustice caused by the legal profession & the Law Society of Scotland in the following articles :

The polluter pays – Why cleaning up lawyers sins of the past would be good for the public & legal profession alike

Law chiefs & politicians who left Scots denied access to justice should move to heal legal system’s sins of the past

There .. not too difficult is it now – and it doesn’t involved rocket science .. only needing the will to clean up the sins of the past and do some good, for maligned clients, the legal profession, the justice system, and the general public interest. Has to be a good idea, surely !

Truth & reconciliation is the way ahead, but putting together the legal profession, maligned clients, politicians who must lead the process or at least encourage it, and consumer organisations is not the easiest of tasks but it is definitely the way to proceed on this difficult and thorny issue, itself which has led to the changes in legislation and the creation of the new complaints commission.

It seems apparent there will have to be an independent Commission created for the purpose of re examining injustice caused by past mishandled cases of complaint against solicitors.

To achieve this, I hope the Scottish Government can see their way to bringing political leadership to this issue, by way of a fully independent Truth & Reconciliation Commission, ensuring a fair hearing for many people who have most certainly been denied such a right by the legal profession in the past – and are now seeing their rights abused again by what was to be a new broom in the legal world, now sadly losing its bristles before it even begins its work.

Hoping to repair the situation somewhat, the Scottish Consumer Council has also been campaigning for historical cases of poorly handled complaints against solicitors to be re examined by the new Commission, and has replied to the SLCC’s rules consultation, pointing out inadequacies in the way the SLCC’s remit and complaints handling is to be implemented.

In fact, looking at the SLCC’s remit, one could be forgiven of thinking it was … written by the Law Society of Scotland ?

The Scottish Consumer Council’s response to the SLCC’s consultation can be viewed here : Rules of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission 2008 Consultation Draft (in pdf format), and is reprinted below.. You can read more about the SLCC consultation HERE

10 June 2008

Dear Jane

Rules of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission 2008 – consultation draft

Thank you for consulting the Scottish Consumer Council (SCC) on the draft rules of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. We welcome the opportunity to comment on the consultation draft.

General comments

While we understand the need for the rules to be formal and precise, it is important that complainers are able to understand how they operate.

We hope, therefore, that the rules will be supplemented by clear, easily understood guidance for complainers on the Commission’s rules and procedures.We understand that the Commission is also to set up a ‘gateway team’ to advise and assist complainers, and we welcome this.

We are concerned that the Commission does not intend to consider re-opening historic complaints, particularly in relation to complaints about endowments sold by solicitors. We consider these to be a class of complaints which may merit being re-considered, for the reasons which we have previously outlined to the Commission.

Specific comments Rule 3 – making a complaint etc.

We are concerned about the implications of draft rule 3(6), which go beyond the issue of historic cases. As the draft rule stands, where the conduct or service complained about relates to a matter in which the practitioner was instructed by the complainer before 1 October 2008, the Commission will not accept the complaint.

This means that such cases will continue to be dealt with by the relevant professional bodies. This could mean that those bodies will have to continue to deal with such cases for many years after the work was carried out – where, for example, there has been a mistake in a conveying a property or in drafting a will, the problem may only be discovered many years after the event.

We presume that this also means that anyone who has a complaint falling into this category will only be entitled to the level of compensation which the professional body was able to award at the time the work was carried out, rather than the maximum £20,000 which the Commission will be able to award.

While it is understandable that the Commission wishes to start with a clean sheet, it seems unlikely that this situation is what the Scottish parliament intended. It also seems unfair on the professional bodies who could continue to receive such complaints for many years.

We would suggest that an appropriate compromise might be to apply rule 3(7) to cases falling within rule 3(6) (a), which would allow the Commission to deal with genuine long-term cases, without opening the floodgates. This would also mean that the professional bodies would know that there was a clear cut-off point for them beyond which they would not have to deal with service complaints. We would expect this date to be 1 October2009, on the basis that they will only accept complaints for up to one year after 1 October, which we understand is the intention of the Law Society of Scotland.

Rules 13-14: hearings

We are concerned that the terms of these rules – which refer to ‘hearings’, ‘evidence’ etc.- suggest an adversarial procedure, although the Commission has made clear it intends to operate in a more inquisitorial fashion.

Rule 21: quorum

We would suggest that draft rule 21(2) should provide that a quorum of any committee should include at least one non-lawyer member and one lawyer member.

Rule 22: reasons for determination

We would suggest that the Commission should give written reasons for its determinations, decisions etc.

Draft application form

It is not clear whether this is intended to be a paper form or if it can be completed electronically. Presumably the need for a signature means that even if it can be filled in electronically, it will need to be printed off and signed.

Again, we assume that the form will be accompanied by guidance explaining the meaning of terms such as ‘instructed’, ‘practitioner’ and ‘professional body’.

Question 1 – it may be helpful to make clear that an approximate date will be sufficient, where the complainer is unsure as to the exact date when they instructed the practitioner.

Question 2- it would be helpful to clarify from whom the details might be kept confidential – presumably the practitioner complained about. It could also be made clearer that not all of the possible types of contact details are required – only a name and postal address are needed in terms of the rules. Clearly, however, other forms of contact may be helpful to the Commission and would also be more convenient for the complainer.

Question 3 – is there a need to state here, as in relation to Question 6, that if the complainer refuses to allow the form to be copied to the practitioner, the Commission cannot investigate the complaint?

Question 4 – it is not clear what happens if the person filling in the form is not the client. Presumably if the Commission is to make a determination under draft rule 3(4) as to whether it is appropriate for that person to make the complaint on the client’s behalf, it will need further information about the substance of the complaint, as set out in the rest of the form.

It is not clear whether this question is also intended to cover the situation where the complainer wishes to complain about a practitioner’s service, but is neither the client nor acting on behalf of the client. This might be someone else who has suffered as a result of the practitioner’s alleged poor service/negligence, such as a beneficiary of a will or the client of a solicitor on the other side of a transaction, for example.

Question 9 – we are not convinced that complainers should be asked about why they want a particular resolution. This could be seen to be intrusive and is not necessarily relevant to the complaint. We would suggest that instead, question 8 could be opened up a bit more – to ask the complainer what ‘other action’ they would like to see, for example.

Finally we would have expected to see a question in the form about whether the complainer has already complained to the practitioner / firm / been through the firm’s complaints procedure. While the new process requires people to go through this stage before going to the Commission, not everyone will be aware of this.

I hope that these comments are helpful.

Martyn Evans Director

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