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Lawyers FOI secrecy feud with regulator wrecks £10K ‘Complaints Handling Research’ as 75% of solicitors, advocates refuse to disclose client complaint statistics

15 Feb

SLCCLawyers survey boycott & unverifiable data ruins complaints research. COSTLY RESEARCH undertaken by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) into how lawyers & advocates ‘handle’ complaints from their clients has today been labelled “an expensive failure & time wasting exercise” after results revealed a staggering 75% of all Scottish law firms & advocates either “refused”, were “not available” or “terminated” their participation in the research which sought disclosure of key details on how complaints from dissatisfied clients are handled made to them before clients are forced to approach regulators such as the SLCC or Law Society of Scotland.

And while the lack of participation effectively rendered the ‘independent’ SLCC’s research unusable, insiders at the regulator now also believe many law firms fiddled the numbers and simply LIED in what little data was actually handed over by the legal profession, as none of what was submitted can be independently verified or subject to public inspection.

Figures released in the two reports published by the SLCC show that of the total numbers of questionnaires & letters sent out to every law firm & advocate in Scotland by research firm TNS-BMRB who were commissioned by the SLCC to carry out the research, 850 law firms and 350 advocates either refused or for a variety of other reasons, failed to disclose any details on how complaints made by dissatisfied clients are handled.

Although TNS BMRB had undertaken the research in May & June 2012, both reports had curiously remained secret until the SLCC responded to a Freedom of Information request from Diary of Injustice, which can be viewed online in its entirety, here : FOI Release – SLCC Research into complaint numbers & complaints handling by practitioners

Later that same day (31st January) after the documentation was released to Diary of Injustice journalists, the SLCC issued a press release with a short comment from Richard Keen, the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates. There has so far been no comment from the Law Society of Scotland on the survey or the lack of participation of its members.

Both reports can be viewed on the SLCC’s website HERE & HERE or online here : SLCC Final Report on Complaints Numbers & Complaints Handling amongst Scottish Advocates & here : SLCC Final Report on Complaints Numbers & Complaints Handling amongst Scottish Legal Firms

The mass non-participation of Scotland’s legal profession in the ‘independent’ regulator’s complaints survey comes as no surprise after Diary of Injustice earlier reported on calls by various sections of Scotland’s legal profession to boycott the survey after lawyers groups such as the Scottish Law Agents Society (SLAS) voiced fears that any information handed over to the SLCC would be released to the media via Freedom of Information Requests.

To allay the lawyers concerns over complaints data being released to the public, the ‘independent’ SLCC brokered a sinister deal of secrecy, and ordered research firm TNS BMRB not to hand over any data to the SLCC directly, thus avoiding Freedom of Information and its requirements. The SLCC issued a public statement to the legal profession saying : “While it is the case that the SLCC is subject to Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002 (FOISA), it should be noted that information is being ingathered on a confidential basis by the researchers purely for the purpose of statistical analysis by them. Information from individual legal firms, or data that could identify any legal firms or individual practitioners, will not be passed on to the SLCC.”

DOI reported on this highly questionable move on the ‘independent’ SLCC’s deal with lawyers to avoid FOI disclosure of complaints information, here : Law regulator SLCC responds to lawyers call to boycott complaints research : ‘We will AVOID Freedom of Information by stashing data with researchers’

TNS BMRB were tasked with securing the following information for their research :

Statistical Information

1. To establish number and type of transactions by practice area, since 2008;

2. To establish number of complaints dealt with since 2008, by practice area;

3. To identify from where complaints originate;

4. To establish the outcome and disposal of complaints.

Complaints handling

1. To identify management information systems in place for complaint record keeping;

2. To establish how lessons learned about complaints handling are captured and cascaded through the firm;

3. To assess how clients and others are informed about how to make a complaint;

4. To determine the type and provider of any training/guidance received on complaint handling;

5. To ascertain the appeal of different options for further support on complaint handling

The SLCC claimed that the research, the first of its kind in Scotland, was intended as an initial fact-finding exercise. As such, it has highlighted scope for further work which the SLCC will undertake as part of its on-going oversight role.

However, the information which made it into the research and the conclusions of both reports unsurprisingly reveal complaints records within the Scottish legal profession are at best, a mess.

More worryingly, if unsurprisingly, analysis of the reports by consumer campaigners reveal a deliberate act of deception on the part of lawyers to avoid accurate reporting of client dissatisfaction with Scottish solicitors & law firms, now rated as among the worst & most expensive in the entire European Union.

Critics who have viewed & studied both the report into law firms & advocates have raised serious doubts over the accuracy of information handed over to the research firm by Scottish lawyers & advocates, highlighting the fact there is absolutely no way to authenticate any of the data handed over to the researchers in interviews or questionnaires.

One senior spokesperson for a Scottish consumer group said she believed “much of the material was probably fabricated by law firms who were told not to reveal accurate complaints data to the SLCC or their researchers.”

Speaking about its piece of expensive, unverifiable research, David Buchanan Cook, the SLCC’s Head of Oversight issued a vague public statement claiming: “While the reports show that complaint levels are low, they are increasing. Complaints have a direct impact on any business, so it’s surprising that more practitioners don’t take simple steps to listen and to put matters right. The reports show that in a quarter of complaints resolved a simple apology was all that was needed yet a large number of practitioners faced with a complaint do nothing at all. In these cases both the complainer and the practitioner lose out.”

Mr Buchanan Cook continued “The reports do highlight that it can be more challenging for smaller firms and sole practitioners to deal with complaints in terms of resources, processes and experience. We will be working with both the Law Society and the Faculty of Advocates to draw up best practice guidance later this year to help. We will also be using the reports to identify where we can help the profession to improve complaint handling. The public has a right to expect complaints to be listened to and where something has gone wrong, the practitioner should put it right. It’s not just a question of fairness- it’s good business sense too.”

The SLCC refused to answer questions on the low participation rate of the survey and offered no comment on the legal profession’s call to boycott the SLCC’s research, which will be met out of its 2011-2012 budget. However, a legal insider at the SLCC admitted “lawyers had been expected to lie in their responses to the research”, now branded “an expensive failure & time wasting exercise”.

With the Law Society of Scotland apparently refusing to issue a press statement on the research, Richard Keen QC, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates was wheeled out to provide some backup to the beleaguered SLCC. Mr Keen said : “The Faculty of Advocates takes its responsibility for complaints handling extremely seriously and notes from the report that the level of complaints to new cases is “undoubtedly low.” The Faculty will study the report and engage with the SLCC in taking forward a number of broad themes that have been identified.”

It should be noted that clients & consumers were completely shut out of this SLCC research project, as Diary of Injustice earlier reported here : Consumers ‘locked out of debate’ as Scottish Legal Complaints Commission carries out yet more research on how solicitors handle complaints

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