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Scots consumers to remain ‘in the dark’ over crooked lawyers complaints histories while English Legal Ombudsman publishes complaint data enabling safer choice of legal services south of the border

30 Mar

Legal Ombudsman The Legal Ombudsman move ahead with publication of complaints about the legal profession in England & Wales. SCOTS CONSUMERS officially now face a clear disadvantage in being able to choose a safe or trustworthy Scottish solicitor or law firm to represent their legal interests, after the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) for England & Wales began publishing preliminary details of complaints brought to its attention by clients who felt they had a raw deal from their legal representatives.

While the Law Society of Scotland & Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) both appear intent on protecting the long term confidentiality & secrecy of the Scottish legal profession’s complaints data, thus ensuring Scottish consumers will not be able to find out their solicitors complaints histories, the move by the Legal Ombudsman south of the border is being seen as an important gesture towards increasing consumer knowledge of common failings of the legal profession typical of many complaints as well as encouraging a shake up in the quality of legal services on offer to the public south of the border.

The policy of publishing complaints data in England & Wales is ultimately intended to lead to actual naming & shaming of rogue law firms & solicitors who persistently provide poor services to consumers, an issue I reported on earlier in the month, here : Name & Shame : Complaints data on law firms to be published in England & Wales, Scots solicitors complaints history to remain secret, for now.

What Scots consumers wont see for a long time yet : Details published for the first time on the Legal Ombudsman’s website of common types of complaints or issues arising from difficult dealings with solicitors in England & Wales give examples such as :

On The Case with the Legal Ombudsman

Court out by costs :

We’ve made our first Ombudsman decision here at the Legal Ombudsman. Let’s have a look at the case…

The complainant, Ms X, was about to buy two properties in Europe when she discovered that the developers hadn’t built the homes to the required specification. She decided it was time to involve a lawyer and found one who was based overseas but regulated in the UK.

Given a costs estimate at the start, with one amount for initial advice and negotiations, and an additional figure if the case went to court, Ms X engaged the lawyer’s services.

When negotiations broke down with the vendors, Ms X was told that the court costs would be £2,500 more than she was originally advised. When she asked why, her lawyer told her that her case had generated more correspondence than usual. He explained that as that was likely to continue, the price had to rise.

Ms X hasn’t decided whether to pursue the matter in court, but has chosen to complain about the service her lawyer provided. She explained that she wouldn’t have employed him if she’d known the price would increase. Dissatisfied with his response to her complaint, Ms X turned to us for help to resolve it. She added that as well as the increase in costs for taking the case to court, she was also unhappy with the price charged for the work already carried out.

Our view was that the work originally agreed had been completed without unnecessary delay and the firm had acted reasonably. However, we also concluded that there could have been a better explanation of the court costs and how these could change over time.

Ms X wasn’t satisfied with the recommendation we made. She wanted more money back from her lawyer and asked us to refer the case for an Ombudsman’s decision. So that’s what we did.

The result was that our Ombudsman agreed with the recommendation originally made. We decided that the lawyer should pay Ms X £150 in recognition of the inconvenience caused by this inadequate costs information. The lawyer agreed to this and has assured us that the firm had started to issue client care letters as a result of our involvement.

Case one: home sweet home? :

Mr and Mrs A bought their house in 2005 – or so they thought. When they came to sell last year, they discovered that they didn’t actually own their home. The solicitor for the people who wanted to buy the house discovered that Mr and Mrs A’s names had never been transferred to the Land Registry documents. On the face of it, this looks like a serious oversight by the solicitor who managed the original purchase on their behalf.

Mr and Mrs A were not able to sort things out with their solicitor and so complained to us.

Case two: money matters :

Ms B is divorced now but has been left feeling dissatisfied with the service her lawyer provided at the time of the divorce. She had asked that the decree absolute should not be signed until all outstanding financial matters with her husband had been resolved. She realised that if it was signed before then, she’d be left in a sticky financial situation. When she was asked to sign the document herself, she did so believing her lawyer had followed her wishes. Unfortunately, as it turned out, a number of money matters had not been dealt with beforehand, as she had asked. So she is feeling let down by her lawyer and unhappy that they hadn’t made this clear.

Case three: where there’s a will… :

Mr C is the executor of his mum’s estate. The lawyer acting on his behalf had the task of selling his mother’s house and closing her two bank accounts. Mr C is also a beneficiary, so once these things are done, he will receive some money from the estate. A year down the line, and the lawyer has done nothing.. And Mr C hasn’t heard from him for two months, despite chasing him on several occasions.

Mr C hasn’t been able to resolve things with the lawyer himself and so brought his complaint to us.

Case four: just the job :

Ms D was sacked from her job, but had the right to appeal against the decision. So she instructed a lawyer to act on her behalf, but they missed the deadlines required for her case to be heard in court. This meant she couldn’t go ahead with her appeal at all. She complains that she’s been let down by the person she employed to help her.

Case five: a clean break :

Mr E contacted us to complain about the lawyer who had been dealing with his elderly mother’s case. She’d fallen badly and damaged her ankle while out shopping. The ‘no win, no fee’ solicitor involved has taken three years to conclude that the case is not worth pursuing. Mr E believes that this timescale is unacceptable and has left his mother very distressed. She was under the impression that the case was nearing conclusion. Had she been told about this sooner, we were told, she would have employed another lawyer to deal with her case.

Case six: rising damp :

Mr F bought a property in London six years ago, knowing that there were problems with damp. He asked his solicitor at the time to make it a condition of sale that the damp would be fixed. His solicitor said it was all fine and so Mr F went ahead with the purchase. When he came to sell, however, a survey carried out for a potential buyer found the problem was still there. It seems that the work had not been done after all. Now Mr F wants to sell up and is insisting that his solicitor pays to sort out the damp and refund the fees that have already been paid to him.

Case seven: lost in transition :

Ms G’s family has used the same solicitor for generations, looking after the deeds to her house and her will. She contacted the firm a couple of weeks ago as she wanted to make some changes to her will, only to be told that the documents had been lost. The original firm has merged with another one and now nobody at the new place is accepting responsibility for the loss.

As a result, Mrs G brought her complaint to us.

Case eight: stop rambling :

Mr and Mrs H are finding it hard to sell their home. They bought the house 10 years ago, but they say their solicitor failed to tell them about the public right of way that runs across the back of the house. This is putting potential buyers off. Mr and Mrs H say they wouldn’t have bought the house, or would have paid less, if they’d known that people had the right to walk through their garden. They didn’t know anything about this until they put their house on the market.

Their solicitor says he made the situation clear to them at the time, but the couple have brought their complaint to us.

Case nine: page turner :

Mr I is in prison. He has been asking his solicitor to forward a few items of personal property for the past two months, but has heard nothing back. These things are really important to Mr I – religious books that he needs to have with him while he’s in prison. All he wants is his belongings to be sent to him as soon as possible.

He has complained to us that something so straightforward really shouldn’t take so long.

Case ten: the French connection :

A complainant from France, who dealt with an English lawyer, bought a 1940s property. She decided to make some improvements to her new home, including changing all of the windows. She then received a letter from the local council telling her the property was listed and she’d need to put it back to its original condition. She’s annoyed because her lawyer had failed to mention the fact she was buying a listed building, and she’s now faced with the costs of putting the matter right.

Case eleven: trouble and strife :

One very distressed caller wants to complain about the solicitor who has been dealing with her acrimonious divorce. As part of the settlement, the marital home had to be sold. Her solicitor told her that she must be present with her husband when the valuation was carried out. She told him that she didn’t want to do this, explaining that there had been domestic violence in the relationship and she wouldn’t feel comfortable. Despite her protests, she told us he convinced her that she had to be there. The solicitor joined her for the valuation and her husband also turned up … with his new girlfriend. The trouble that followed meant the police had to be called and the complainant has told us she has been under a great deal of stress ever since. She wants action taken against her solicitor for the distress caused.

Case twelve: first case closed! :

A caller wants to complain about the lawyer dealing with his tribunal. The lawyer had taken it upon himself to adjourn the case on four separate occasions – without letting his client know. The latest hearing was scheduled for 29 October, and the lawyer wanted to delay that hearing until December. This was an adjournment too far for our caller, who told the lawyer he wanted his file back and money returned. He heard nothing back following his request. We called the solicitor involved and upon hearing that the Legal Ombudsman was involved, the lawyer agreed to return his client’s file and any money owed within the next three days.

While the complaints data now published by the LeO does not yet name actual solicitors or law firms, it is envisaged this will come sooner rather than later. The information will certainly carry much more weight in the public’s eyes if actual solicitors & law firms are identified, thus helping to avoid consumers hiring the same ‘crooked lawyers’ who have maligned other clients.

SLCC LAW SOCIETYLaw Society & SLCC much more anti-consumer than England’s LeO.In Scotland, the Law Society of Scotland, Scottish Legal Complaints Commission & Faculty of Advocates all refuse to publish complaints data naming law firms & the many solicitor ‘serial offenders’ or ‘crooked lawyers’ in Scotland’s legal profession. Currently, Scots consumers can only find out if a lawyer has had any findings made against them by visiting the consumer unfriendly Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal website, where details of cases seem to indicate more often than not, ‘crooked lawyers’ who end up in front of the Tribunal even on the most serious of charges, remain in legal practice while clients affected by their actions receive little or no redress.

Consumer Focus Scotland logoConsumer Focus Scotland support publication of Scottish legal profession’s complaints data. However, while there is still no sign of any similar moves by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission to name & shame Scotland’s many rogue solicitors & law firms, Consumer Focus Scotland have now come out in favour of publishing complaints data, a move which may well help many Scots consumers avoid going to solicitors & law firms who for now, are able to keep their complaints records & regulatory histories hidden from the public.

Gemma Crompton, Senior Policy Advocate (Legal Services) for Consumer Focus Scotland commenting on the matter said : “Publications of complaints data is a useful source of information for consumers. The SLCC currently produces some complaints data within their annual report. This includes information on the number of complaints received, the areas of law to which these relate and the stage of the SLCC’s process at which these complaints were resolved.”

Ms Crompton continued : “In its ‘Complaints about solicitors’ research, the Scottish Consumer Council, one of our predecessor bodies recommended that performance targets for each stage of the complaints process be published. Case study examples are published routinely by ombudsmen in the public sector, and used to be published by the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman in its annual report. In 2010, a survey of our consumer network of volunteers to inform the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman’s model complaints handling process found that the publication of the outcomes of complaints was a particularly important principle for these consumers.”

Insiders at the SLCC who spoke on the issue earlier this week claimed the Scots law complaints quango has no intention to name & shame any of Scotland’s ‘crooked lawyers’ for fear of upsetting the Law Society of Scotland who certainly do not want anyone finding out their solicitor may be up to their necks in complaints about negligence, embezzlement or ripping off legal aid claims …

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