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Scottish failure, English success ? Annual report of Legal Ombudsman of England & Wales is ‘streets ahead’ of anti-consumer Scottish Legal Complaints Commission

25 Jul

Legal OmbudsmanLegal Ombudsman’s first annual report is ‘streets ahead’ of Scottish attempts at complaints regulation via SLCC. LAST WEEK the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) for England & Wales, Adam Sampson, issued his first annual report on regulation of complaints against the legal services market for England & Wales. Mr Sampson’s first report, which features stories from the LeO’s investigations into complaints has been for the main, well received, and is noticeably much more consumer friendly than the notoriously anti-client Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) which has produced three annual reports since it came into being in 2008, the latest of which showed SLCC had managed to uphold only one single complaint in three years.

The full annual report of the Legal Ombudsman can be downloaded here : Legal Ombudsman Annual Report 2010-2011. The LeO’s website is a world away from the Scottish SLCC’s poor offering. The LeO also offers information on case examples where the LeO have investigated complaints, more of which can be found HERE while decisions of the LeO can be viewed HERE. The Legal Ombudsman for England & Wales, Adam Sampson, the Legal Ombudsman also has an online blog, well worth a visit HERE.

Within the LeO’s report, some of the following stories are featured in a significantly more detailed manner than anything seen in Scotland. The problems encountered by consumers in England & Wales when dealing with the legal profession will be familiar to Scots consumers of legal services, the only difference being in Scotland, consumers have to deal with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission & the Law Society of Scotland, two of Scotland’s self regulators of the legal profession renowned for their anti-consumer stance when dealing with complaints against solicitors.

Mr Sampson said in his report : “We use lawyers at key points in our lives – at important, and often upsetting or stressful times like when we move house, have an accident or get divorced. I have included these stories in my first Chief Ombudsman’s report because the experiences of the people involved demonstrate the impact of a changing and developing legal services market.”

In the case of a will gone wrong, where a client had initially gone to a solicitor for a will then had been introduced to a will writer by the solicitor, the LeO reported :

Mr F complained to us that he had gone to a high street solicitor to write a will. He was then introduced to an individual in an adjoining office whom he was told would provide the service. In the event, the will proved defective. However, when he complained, Mr F was told by the firm’s senior partner that the will writer concerned had been working for a linked, but unregulated, company offering legal services, including will writing.

This was the first of a number of similar matters raised with us about the same company. Although the company claimed to be out of jurisdiction and the service – will writing – is not a reserved activity, we considered that the connection between the solicitors firm and the company complained about was umbilical: the firm had made the introduction, the complaint was answered by the senior partner on behalf of both entities, and the senior partner was the owner of both. Since the senior partner was a regulated individual, we judged that the company fell within our jurisdiction.

In the event, and to complicate matters further, while our investigation was nearing its end, the senior partner died. The company was then taken over by another, similar company which appears to have even less connection with a regulated individual. Nevertheless, we believe that the remedy we ordered in this case will be enforceable, either against the successor company or the legal insurers.

In another example, the LeO reported :

Mr P is a trustee of a social club. He and his fellow trustees employed a firm of lawyers to sell the club’s premises and to distribute the payment of the proceeds of sale to all the members of the club – about 180 people. The club found buyers, the sale went through and the proceeds were paid to the law firm, as is normal practice. Part of the money was used to pay off the club’s final bills and some loans, which the firm handled, leaving a substantial amount of around £180,000 to go to members. The firm also advised that there would be a delay in distributing the money to members for various administrative reasons. Not being an expert in conveyancing, Mr P was satisfied with this. After six months the firm got in contact to begin to sort out the payment to members… and then went silent.

Mr P tried to raise his concerns with the firm. He then came to the Ombudsman, as the firm had not explained what had happened to the money from the sale and the members had not yet received any cash. He also asked that the firm refund the fees the trustees had already paid them, as the work had not been carried out properly.

We found that the firm had been a sole practice – but that the lawyer was no longer practising. This seemed to be why Mr P hadn’t heard about the money from the sale of the club, though it was confusing as the solicitor occasionally got in touch. Mr P didn’t know what to do, so had sought advice from a second firm of solicitors. They also tried to contact the first firm but had no reply. Mr P heard again briefly from his first lawyer to say that members would get their money soon… and then heard nothing again.

When we looked into this case, there was very little written down about what had happened. There was no client care letter, no written details about how the cash from the sale had been handled, or even about what money had been paid to clear debts and loans. What was clear was that there was some sort of problem in the law firm, and that the lawyer had tried to delay this matter. It was also clear that most of the money from the club was still in the solicitor’s client account, even though the firm’s records were very poor.

There had been no attempt to pay this money to the club members – but the money was the club’s and should not have been kept for so long by the solicitor. It had been three years since Mr P and the other trustees put the club up for sale.

Our Ombudsman decided that there was around £180,000 outstanding and required the firm to re-pay this, with interest, to the club and its members. A formal Ombudsman’s decision was required as the solicitor did not cooperate throughout our investigation. We also referred this and the outcome of this case to the regulator, the Solicitors Regulation Authority, for their help in getting the club’s cash out of the solicitor’s client account and returned to Mr P and the other members

In a third example, the LeO reported :

Mr and Mrs N had taken on a solicitor to help with two separate matters – an employment tribunal and the other to do with their mortgage insurance. They were clearly not happy with aspects of his work and felt that the lawyer had not taken their concerns seriously. After trying to raise their concerns with him, they complained to us.

We first contacted the solicitor in October 2010. He repeatedly failed to respond to or comply with our requests for documents and information. Mr and Mrs N now saw the solicitor ignore the Ombudsman – and were again left waiting for an outcome to their complaint. Eventually, after seven months had gone by, we decided to take enforcement action against him as he had repeatedly failed to produce documents or provide information – even when he received a formal notice requiring him to. There were some eight prior letters, phone calls or emails from the Ombudsman, plus a formal notice and a letter from the Solicitors Regulation Authority, before proceedings were issued.

The court first dealt with the case in May, but the solicitor failed to attend the hearing and so the judge ordered his arrest. A few days later, the solicitor surrendered to the court and was brought before the judge, when he was released after a court date had been set.

At the formal court hearing, the solicitor promised the High Court that he would cooperate with an investigation into a complaint against him – or risk being punished by the court. The judge emphasised to the solicitor that it was “absolutely essential” he communicate with the Ombudsman and cooperate to a high professional standard. Failure, said the judge, was “likely to attract the sanction of the court”.

The lawyer gave an undertaking to the court that he would do everything he could to help find the files needed by the Ombudsman, to cooperate with the investigation into the complaint and any others against him, and keep the Ombudsman updated with his contact details. He was also ordered to pay the Ombudsman’s costs in the case so far of just over £11,000. At the time of writing, we are still waiting for the information we need to resolve this case – but there is another court date set, so, while it is disappointing to have had to go to these lengths, there is an end in sight for Mr and Mrs N.

At the same time as we were dealing with this case, which ended up in the High Court, we were having similar issues with another solicitor.

This one – a busy sole practitioner with a general practice – had failed to respond to our correspondence about Mr O’s complaint. So he was also served with a notice requiring him to produce the relevant documents and other information. When he ignored it, we reported him to the Solicitors Regulation Authority. When more time passed again without hearing from him, we also said that we had the power to ask the High Court to compel him to cooperate. At the last minute, when faced with having to explain his non-compliance to a judge, the lawyer reconsidered his position. He provided us with the information we needed, reconciled with Mr O and continued to represent him.

adam_sampsonLegal Ombudsman for England & Wales, Adam Sampson. Mr Sampson also wrote in his report about the blurred edges of regulation : “There have been cases which have begun to clarify some of the jurisdictional tests which we will apply to complaints raised with us. These include whether the person making the complaint has been provided with legal services (a test which is significantly wider than whether the complainant was a “client” of a lawyer); whether the complaint was within the timescales laid down by our Scheme Rules (normally within a year of the complainant having knowledge that there was reason to complain); whether the complaint was from an individual, small charity or micro-enterprise (rather than a larger, corporate entity), and so on. We believe that, although we will need to keep these aspects of our jurisdiction under review, there is nothing inherently so opaque about these tests that cannot be clarified over time.”

Which logoConsumer Group Which? gave its reaction  to the Legal Ombudsman’s first Annual Report, stating : As the Legal Ombudsman publishes its first annual report today, Which? supports its call for greater protection against confusing structures and dodgy claims management and will-writing companies. Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “We want the government and regulators to wake up to the current lack of clarity and to provide a clear and straightforward route of redress for consumers”.

Undercover investigations : Which? undercover investigations into both will-writing firms and claims management companies have revealed examples of poor practice. But the Legal Ombudsman does not currently have the powers to investigate these types of organisations. Many consumers believe they are getting a legal service from such companies, but don’t realise that the work may be carried out by someone who isn’t authorised to do so.

Route for redress : Expanding the remit of the Legal Ombudsman would allow it to tackle problem areas of the market, give it greater scope to challenge future issues and offer customers a clear means of redress where they have received a poor legal service.

Richard Lloyd said: “As the legal services market continues to grow in both size and complexity, it’s crucial that consumers who have paid for a legal service that’s not up to scratch know where to turn to get help”.

Gaps in regulation : Law Society chief executive Des Hudson said: “The gap in regulation which allows unregulated cowboys to operate in areas like will-writing doesn’t just cause unfair competition to solicitors, who provide a regulated, professional service. It is also damaging to consumers, because the unregulated providers aren’t insured, don’t provide a compensation fund, and aren’t covered by the Legal Ombudsman’s scheme for consumer redress.”

38,000 legal complaints : The Legal Ombudsman service was established in October 2010. Its remit is to make sure legal complaints are ‘resolved quickly and with minimum formality by an independent person’. More than 38,000 people contacted the Legal Ombudsman during its first six months in operation. The organisation has launched nearly 4,000 investigations into the service provided by lawyers, and resolved 1,450 cases.

SLCC Scottish Legal Complaints Commission a complete failure for Scots consumer protection against poor legal services. Well, the differences in how the Legal Ombudsman and the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission operate are astounding, to say the least. Perhaps Scots should flock south of the border to use English legal services given the prejudice & poor regulation offered by the Scottish legal services market. At least the LeO appears to have more of a will to tackle the main problems of regulation rather than the SLCC who have done little for the past three years other than soak up over half a million pounds in expenses claims & remuneration, while chalking up a few bar tabs at the same time.

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