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Consumers ‘locked out of debate’ as Scottish Legal Complaints Commission carries out yet more research on how solicitors handle complaints

01 May

SLCCScottish Legal Complaints Commission commissions more research on complaints against solicitors. FOURTEEN MILLION POUNDS and FOUR YEARS LATER, with little to show for it in the way of struck-off ‘crooked lawyers’ or clients happy their complaints were fully resolved or fully compensated for their losses, the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) has announced it is to embark on YET ANOTHER round of research into how Scottish solicitors ‘deal with complaints’ and ‘the subject of those complaints’ with the commissioning of a new research project, this time being handled by TNS Research International TNS-BMRB for an as yet undisclosed sum.

The research is to be conduced via telephone interviews between TNS Research and law firms, although there is apparently no obligation on solicitors to participate. Clients & consumers WILL NOT be asked for their input in the SLCC’s latest research.

Diary of Injustice recently reported on another SLCC research project into how the Law Society of Scotland handled conduct complaints, here : Protection Racket : SLCC’s ‘whitewash’ investigation of Law Society of Scotland’s conduct complaint process ends in failure to publish full report. However, the SLCC has so far refused to publish its full findings, limiting published information to a brief mention on it’s website.

Consumers of legal services in Scotland should not expect any improvement in how the SLCC address client complaints after the close of this research, as no improvements to complaints handling at the SLCC have taken place since October 2008 in spite of a number of costly research projects undertaken by the notoriously anti-client legal complaints watchdog whose board members branded financially ruined clients as “frequent flyers” and “chancers”.

An earlier research project commissioned by the SLCC in 2009 & carried out by the University of Manchester’s Law School in to the Law Society of Scotland’s Master Insurance Policy revealed clients had committed suicide because of the way they had been treated over claims made against negligent or corrupt solicitors. Diary of Injustice reported on the Master Policy research revelations here : Suicides, illness, broken families and ruined clients reveal true cost of Law Society’s Master Policy which ‘allows solicitors to sleep at night’

However, the SLCC has steadfastly refused to monitor individual claims to the Master Policy in spite of being asked by members of the public to do so, and no detectable changes have been made to how the SLCC deals with complaints made against negligent solicitors.

The SLCC’s announcement of the new research :

SLCC Research into complaint numbers and practitioners’ handling of complaints

As part of its oversight role the SLCC monitors complaints and identifies trends in practice, in relation to how practitioners deal with complaints and the subject of those complaints.  This includes undertaking research.  The latest research the SLCC is carrying out is into complaints made to, and dealt with, by the legal profession in Scotland.

The SLCC has commissioned TNS-BMRB to carry out research into:

the numbers of complaints which solicitors and advocates deal with on an annual basis, including those made directly to the practitioners which are never referred to the SLCC, and complaints which are made through the SLCC’s complaints process; and
whether the number and types of transactions carried out by practitioners have any correlation to numbers of complaints received by the SLCC.

During April and May 2012, TNS-BMRB will be contacting Client Relations Managers (CRMs) and advocates for information about their practice (where applicable) and complaints, including:

the size of the firm (e.g. number of partners and Scottish qualified staff practising in Scotland);
scope of practice areas;
the number of transactions, by practice area, the firm dealt with in the last 3 years;
the number of complaints received in the last 3 years, by practice area; and
from whom complaints originate (e.g. from clients or other third parties).

For CRMs, the research will be conducted via a telephone interview, which should take an average of 7 – 10 minutes.  A data sheet will be emailed in advance of the interview to allow CRMs time to retrieve records and to use that information as an aide memoire during the interview.  Advocates will be sent questionnaires to complete and return by post. The SLCC aims to collate information about general complaint handling and expertise employed by those who deal with complaints, and to identify whether there are any unmet training needs.

Practitioners will be asked about:

the processes and procedures in place to deal with and record complaints;
how complaints are disposed of;
the outcome of complaints (e.g. resolved, action taken where complainer remains dissatisfied); and
the level, frequency and type of training (either internally or externally) which they have received regarding complaint handling, how to improve services to prevent/avoid complaints and client care, and how this knowledge and training is disseminated to employees.

The telephone interviews will be carried out during the first few weeks of May 2012.  Advocates should receive their information pack in the first week of May.  Once all data has been obtained from the telephone interviews, the information will be collated, scrutinised and a report prepared by TNS-BMRB.  The SLCC will publish a report on its research in due course. The participation of practitioners is critical to the success of this research and to enabling the SLCC to provide advice, guidance and support in relation to complaints handling in the future which adds value to and reduces costs to the profession. Please refer also to the SLCC Strategy and Corporate Plan  and the SLCC Operational Plan.

There has been no media reaction as yet from the Law Society of Scotland to the SLCC’s latest research plan, however the Scottish Law Agents Society has condemned the SLCC’s complaints research proposal, also raising issues about the SLCC’s compliance with Freedom of Information legislation and pointing out solicitors are not required to hand out complaints information to the SLCC’s researchers. SLAS invited their members to submit their own reflections and suggestions in relation to this development, and issued a statement on their website, reprinted here : SLCC REQUEST FOR FIRMS’ COMPLAINTS INFORMATION

The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has written to solicitors’ firms requesting disclosure of information regarding complaints made against firms by clients and, presumably, other interested parties. It is always a matter of great difficulty for solicitors to disclose to third parties information derived from their clients’ files. There is an instinctive reaction to treat clients’ information in the same way that clients’ money is treated and to regard it as not being at the disposal of third parties. There is also the issue as to the privacy of the solicitor’s own business information. When we sought the views of a number of experienced practitioners and advisers as to whether this information should be supplied to SLCC, the immediate response was unanimously negative. The following observations are offered:

1. The notice given by SLCC of this enquiry is insufficient to enable the solicitors’ profession to give collegiate consideration to and to make a considered decision upon the very important issue as to whether or not this sensitive information should be disclosed. 2. The cost of this exercise has to be borne by the solicitors’ profession and no information has been provided as to whether that cost has been estimated and as to whether the exercise will be cost effective. 3. No information is given as to whether or how SLCC has satisfied itself that this exercise falls within its statutory remit and its entitlement to expose solicitors to these costs. 3. The SLCC request does not advise as to whether or not there is any obligation on the part of solicitors to provide this information. 4. Information held by solicitors is private whereas information held by SLCC is subject to Freedom of Information enquiry, disclosure and publication. 5. Law Society officials recommend that firms disclose this information to SLCC. 6. Solicitors do not have any obligation to disclose this information to SLCC. 7. A better option might be for the information to be gathered within the profession where it would remain confidential and beyond the scope of Freedom of Information enquiry and only the conclusions be transmitted to SLCC. This might be achieved through the faculty structure or through the Scottish Law Agents Society. 8. Any research carried out at this stage might helpfully include enquiry into the extent to which the current complaints system accommodates abuse of process by persons who are dissatisfied with proper legal findings 9. The best initial response to this enquiry might be to ask for a further period of time to enable the foregoing issues to be considered and resolved.

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