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Naming & Shaming powers ‘reserved’ : Consumers ‘still in the dark’ on crooked lawyers as identities of rogue solicitors & law firms yet to be published by Legal Ombudsman

21 Jun

Legal OmbudsmanMuch promised Naming & shaming of rogue lawyers yet to happen in England & Wales MORE THAN TWO YEARS after much debate and numerous consultations which received widespread support from consumer groups and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) for the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) of England & Wales to name & shame rogue solicitors & law firms in published complaints data, the policy decision taken by the LeO in April 2012 to publish the identities of lawyers involved in client complaints, has not yet resulted in publication of a single solicitor or law firm’s identity.

Shedding some light on the lack of publication of lawyer’s names to-date, the latest annual report covering 2012-1013 from the Legal Ombudsman states “In one of the key decisions taken during the year related to the publication of the statistics about ombudsman decisions. While there was general agreement that it was desirable for us to publish as much information about the nature of our decisions as possible, lawyers’ representatives were strongly opposed to naming the lawyers involved. Consumer groups on the other hand argued for as much information as possible about lawyers involved in our cases to be placed in the public domain.”

“In the event, following a lengthy consultation process, our board decided that statistical data about all ombudsman decisions should be published, including the area of law, the nature of the complaint, the outcome of the complaint and the name of the lawyer or firm involved. We began publishing this data from autumn 2012. The initial media interest which this engendered has rapidly subsided and as the information builds, we may soon be able to begin discerning some patterns over time.”

“As well as the routine publication of data, the board decided to reserve to itself the power in individual cases to publish the full decision, including the name of the lawyer (but redacting the name of the complainant) where it considers that it is in the public interest to do so. No such publication took place during the year covered by this report.”

However, many consumers and some consumer protection groups had expected the LeO to begin publishing the identities of rogue solicitors and their law firms last year.

Speaking to Diary of Injustice nearly a year ago last July 2012 Chief Ombudsman, Adam Sampson said at the time : “Our Board wanted to ensure that we’re certain about the accuracy of the data we report in the first data set of published Ombudsman decisions and that the lawyers and law firms who’ll be named have an opportunity to point out any discrepancies prior to publication.

“As a result, and on this occasion only, we have this week contacted each of the 750+ lawyers and law firms that have been the subject of our decisions during the first quarter to tell them what we’ll publish. We will then deal with any feedback, where required, in the weeks that follow before publishing the data. The level of feedback and subsequent work needed following this process will determine how soon we can publish the first set of data.”

The Legal Ombudsman had originally announced in November 2011 they would be going ahead with ‘naming & shaming’ in early 2012, reported by Diary of Injustice here : Scots to be ‘kept in dark’ on details of crooked lawyers while Legal Ombudsman’s ‘naming & shaming’ policy ‘will protect’ consumers in England & Wales

Diary of Injustice reported on the Legal Ombudsman’s consultation on naming & shaming here : Legal Ombudsman moving to name & shame crooked lawyers in England & Wales, crooked Scottish solicitors records to remain protected by secrecy for now

Which logoConsumer group Which? gave their backing to the Legal Ombudsman’s plans to identify crooked lawyers in England & Wales. A spokesperson for Which? told Diary of Injustice last year : “Which? strongly supports the principle of the LeO publishing complaints data under a strict and published policy , including in some circumstances the name of the law firm concerned. We set out our position in our response to the LeO consultation (page 51: opening up regulatory data)) pointing out that it is the expectation of Government that complaints handling bodies are as transparent as possible.”

Legal Services Consumer PanelSpeaking on the LeO’s plans to publish complaints data & the identities of law firms who perform poorly for clients, Elisabeth Davies, Chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel (LSCP), said at the time : “Research shows that UK consumers are now leaving well over 100 million comments online every year about their experience with businesses across the economy. Lawyers cannot escape this welcome emergence of consumer power, but instead should seek and then use such feedback to improve the service they offer.

She continued : “The courts will decide the fate of the Solicitors From Hell website. However, such websites fill a vacuum that exists because official complaints data about lawyers is not publically available to help consumers identify good quality lawyers. The Panel will continue to push the Legal Ombudsman to name those law firms who regularly provide poor service.”

oftThe Office of Fair Trading (OFT) also supports the Legal Ombudsman’s naming & shaming policy. The OFT stated in its submission (pdf) to the LeO’s consultation : “We appreciate that you need to balance the interests of consumers with the reputational impact on firms and individual lawyers. However, the OFT remains firmly of the view that the publication of named complaints data could incentivise legal service providers, due to reputational considerations, to maintain and/or improve the quality of service they provide to consumers.We believe that essential data would include:

* The number of complaints made against individual firms and lawyers;

* The nature of those complaints and placing them into categories to help see if a pattern develops;

* The ratio of complaints upheld against an individual firm or lawyer;

* Areas of law where complaints tend to focus;

* Which aspects of service the complaints tend to focus; and

* Whether the complaints tend to come from private or publically funded cases.

However, to-date, no solicitor has yet been named by the LeO, prompting fears in some quarters that protests from the legal profession and alleged murmurs of potential legal action by English lawyers if their names appear in complaints data, has put the brakes on total transparency.

Asked for comment today on lack of naming & shaming by the LeO, a spokesperson for the Legal Services Consumer Panel issued the following statement :

“Just to clarify that LeO publish two types of information: · Details of cases that involve a formal ombudsman decision · Individual cases where this is in the public interest test”

“In relation to the former, this information has been published for a while now. When LeO consulted on this, the Panel wanted all complaints involving a remedy (i.e. those that are mediated as well as ombudsman decisions) to be published. In addition, this information would benefit from having more prominence than it does currently.”

“In relation to the latter, as this is an emergency publication power, given the short period that it has been operational it’s difficult to know whether there have been circumstances when LeO hasn’t used these powers but should have. It would be better to assess this once the scheme has been operational for a longer period.”

For now, consumers are still in the dark over which solicitors & law firms fair better than others in complaints data. Exactly when the Legal Ombudsman does identify rogue lawyers and law firms remains to be decided.

Historically, the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has refused to name any Scottish solicitors or law firms involved in complaints, citing reasons of confidentiality and the terms of the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007 for the prohibition of naming crooked lawyers in Scotland. It is not thought the SLCC in its current format will ever identify rogue lawyers.

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