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Name & Shame : Complaints data on law firms to be published in England & Wales, Scots solicitors complaints history to remain secret, for now

04 Mar

Legal OmbudsmanThe Legal Ombudsman for England & Wales will publish complaints data against law firms. LAWYERS & LAW FIRMS which regularly provide poor service to consumers in England & Wales will be identified by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) in moves announced recently by the independent regulator of legal services in England & Wales after a consultation was held on the merits of publishing information on complaints made by clients against law firms & solicitors south of the border.

The move by the independent Legal Ombudsman for England & Wales is in marked contrast to Scotland where the Law Society of Scotland, Scottish Legal Complaints Commission & Faculty of Advocates all currently refuse to publish complaints data naming law firms & the many solicitor ‘serial offenders’ or ‘crooked lawyers’ in Scotland’s legal profession.

The intention in England & Wales to publish complaints findings & name law firms involved, a term more familiar to many as ‘naming & shaming’ has been welcomed by consumers & campaign groups south of the border.

A media release (pdf) from the Legal Ombudsman stated : Statistics and anonymised case summaries are to be available on the Ombudsman’s website with immediate effect. From June 2011 the service will also be publishing Ombudsman summaries giving detail on the area of law, the type of lawyer and the outcome of the case including the remedy.

This decision follows research the service commissioned, with the Legal Services Consumer Panel, to establish what consumers and high street lawyers consider to be the best way for the Ombudsman to publish its decisions.

The service is also considering hw it might use named data. A consultation workshop with representatives from the legal profession and consumer bodies will help the ombudsman to decide whether to adopt a policy of naming law firms. A decision on this is expected by the end of this year.

Alan Sampson, the Chief Ombudsman, speaking on the issue said : “It is important that we give a comprehensive and fair picture of all the cases that are resolved of formally and informally resolved cases including those where lawyers have provided a good service”

Dianne Hayter, chair of the Legal Services Board Consumer Panel welcomed the decision to publish complaints data, and also expressed her belief the findings from the published research (pdf) will give the Legal Ombudsman “the final piece of evidence” required to name law firms which regularly provided poor service.

A media release (pdf) from the Legal Services Board Consumer Panel quotes Ms Hayter, who said : “This research gives the Legal Ombudsman the final piece of evidence it needs to name those law firms who regularly provide poor service. People depend on lawyers in critical life moments – hiding the identities of the few repeat offenders unfairly puts consumers at risk of harm.”

“Consumers’ insistence on a fair publication scheme should give everyone confidence that complaints data would be used sensibly and lawyers would not be unfairly penalised as some in the profession claim.”

“People’s reluctance to complain about lawyers is worrying and shows the need for effective signposting to the Legal Ombudsman. Naming law firms would show consumers that an impartial body is there to act on their problem, giving them the added confidence boost they need to speak out.”

However, and perhaps in an indication of how Scottish solicitors may resist any similar moves to publish complaints information against crooked lawyers in Scotland, the research commissioned on how solicitors felt about complaints being published (pdf) revealed in its conclusion that solicitors were generally hostile toward the Legal Ombudsman’s plan to publish consumer complaints, with the majority of solicitors against the decision to make complaints information available to the public. Publishing complaints information was a new concept for solicitors to consider. Therefore making information accessible to the public was not viewed as automatic or expected; instead it was viewed with scepticism and caution.

In a revealing finding, the research report concluded “Solicitors were concerned about losing control of the complaints made against them. Most solicitors spoke of ‘problem’ clients and they feared that the Legal Ombudsman’s decision to publish complaints information might add to the perceived power of these difficult clients.”

The report also suggested solicitors wanted to ‘stage manage’ the complaints information which would eventually be published : “In addition to mitigating the power of the consumer, solicitors wanted reassurance that complaints information would be presented in an impartial manner and that each case would not be open to interpretation. It was therefore important to protect the reputation of the solicitor or the firm from the media and/or investigation from local interested parties.”

SLCCThe Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has done nothing in three years to publish complaints details against lawyers in Scotland. In stark contrast to the open debate & moves in England & Wales to naming & shame poorly performing law firms by the Legal Ombudsman, there is no similar debate or current intention here in Scotland by the notoriously anti-consumer Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to publish any complaints investigations or data which may name & shame some of Scotland’s worst (or most crooked) lawyers.

The lack of action by the SLCC in the area of publicly identifying the many serial offender solicitors of Scotland’s legal profession who consistently damage their clients interests, will deprive Scots consumers from being able to make an informed, safe choice on which law firm or solicitor should represent their legal interests.

A consumer official speaking to Diary of Injustice yesterday said Scots are clearly being left at a disadvantage over their choice of legal representatives.

He branded the current lack of information on Scottish law firms complaints records as “appalling” and alleged Scots consumers are “regularly playing Russian roulette with their choice of lawyer because consumers in Scotland have no access to information on law firm’s complaints histories or records of service.”

A client who is waiting on his complaint being investigated by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission described the legal profession’s complaints process in Scotland as being “rigged in favour of solicitors”.

The client, who wishes to remain anonymous said he recently found out from a friend who lives in the same town, the solicitor he has complained about, is the subject of further complaints from another client who has provided evdence showing the solicitor misused land titles.

He went onto say : “Had I known of my solicitor’s record I would never have used him. It is time the dirty history of solicitors complaints files are opened up to expose these people and let clients see exactly who they are employing as their solicitors.”

Another individual who has contacted Diary of Injustice with an account of poor, possibly negligent service from an Edinburgh based law firm and has been treated poorly by the Law Society over his complaint, said : “Would anyone in their right mind go to a solicitor who has ten, twenty or thirty complaints against them and nothing has been done by the Law Society or the SLCC ?”

He continued : “Its time this complaints information is made public so people can see if a lawyer is honest enough to be trusted with handling their legal work. The only way to do this is to make it possible to see what kinds of complaints have been made about lawyers and how they have been handed by the regulators.”

Clearly if a database of complaints investigations and findings existed, along with the identities of law firms & solicitors involved, consumers would be better placed to make a safer choice of which law firm or solicitor will represent their legal interests.

An independently supervised ebay style client ratings system, as some readers have suggested would also be a welcome service to enable consumers to choose which law firm they could safely approach for quality legal services, as opposed to the current set-up, where any client of a solicitor in Scotland does not currently know how many complaints their solicitor has accumulated from other clients or if they have criminal convictions, or if they have been reprimanded, disciplined or punished in some way by their own professional body, the Law Society of Scotland.

A legal insider speaking to Diary of Injustice this afternoon said efforts to implement the naming & shaming policy in Scotland will be severely resisted by the legal profession. He said : “The Law Society of Scotland will halt any similar moves to publish the complaints records of Scottish solicitors by using any means necessary”.

The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission were asked for comment on whether they may follow the lead of England & Wales and publish similar complaints data on Scottish law firms. No comment was received at time of publication.

Scottish consumers are now clearly at a disadvantage compared with their English counterparts in being able to choose for themselves safe, dependable & independently regulated legal services provided by the solicitor or law firm of their own choice. It is clearly time for a much wider reform of regulation of the legal profession in Scotland to bring us into line with the rest of the UK.

Background to the decision to publish complaints data in England & Wales :

The Legal Services Consumer Panel was established under the Legal Services Act 2007 to provide independent advice to the Legal Services Board about the interests of consumers of legal services in England and Wales. The LSB investigate issues that affect consumers and use this information to influence decisions about the regulation of legal services.

It should be noted there is no organisation equivalent to the Legal Services Board Consumer Panel in Scotland, as the Law Society of Scotland is currently mandated under the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980 to represent both the legal profession and the public’s interest in legal services.

The conflicting interests of the Law Society of Scotland to represent both solicitors and clients, is a feature I have recently reported on, together with a public petition filed at the Scottish Parliament asking for the 1980 Act to be repealed, here : Calls for Scottish Parliament to debate future of Law Society as lawyer admits people of Scotland deserve independent regulator of legal services

The Legal Ombudsman and the Legal Services Consumer Panel jointly commissioned qualitative research with consumers, which was conducted by Acute Insight Market Research during November-December 2010. There were a series of ten mini-group discussions, involving 58 consumers. The independent research report is available on the Panel’s website: Identifying Law Firms Subject to Consumer Complaints Research Report (pdf)

The Panel’s full response to the consultation can be found on its website: Legal Ombudsman: Publishing our decisions (pdf)

The Legal Ombudsman’s discussion paper on publishing decisions can be found on their website: Discussion Paper : Publishing our Decisions (pdf)

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