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ROGUES REIMAGINED: Scottish Legal Complaints Commission calls on Scottish Government to reform “complex and legalistic” solicitors’ self regulation & complaints system

14 Jul

Pro-lawyer regulator calls for solicitor complaints reform. THE ‘independent’ regulator of Scottish solicitors – the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) is calling on the Scottish Government to consult on reforms to the “complex and legalistic” system for handling complaints against solicitors and other legal practitioners in Scotland.

The ‘independent’ SLCC – controlled by the Law Society of Scotland and funded by legal fees from clients – has presented a paper titled Reimagine Regulation to Scottish Ministers – setting out six key priority areas the SLCC believes the Government, which has committed to consultation on a review of legal regulation, should focus on.

Explaining that the present system requires different processes depending on the level of seriousness attached to the complaint – inadequate professional service, unsatisfactory conduct or professional misconduct, with complaints sometimes having to restart under a different process – the SLCC wants to “reduce the whole process to three core stages”, namely:

1. A single investigation – ensuring there are a range of flexible options to filter out vexatious and similar complaints and allowing processes proportionate to different levels; £200 or £20,000

2. Determination – by the same organisation in relation to lower level issues, or by prosecution at the professional tribunal for conduct which may lead to removal from the profession;

3. Appeal – to ensure accountability and meet the requirements of natural justice there should be a single opportunity to appeal at the conclusion of the process.

However, any limit of compensation is widely seen as a cave-in to the legal profession, given the fact accumulative financial losses suffered by clients of rogue solicitors can well exceed the £20,000 limit.

Reimagine Regulation – How pro-lawyer regulator views regulation.

The Law Society backed SLCC – is also calling for consultation on whether it is time for a single independent body to handle all aspects of complaints against the legal profession. The single investigatory body was the previous model when the Law Society of Scotland handled all complaints against it’s own member solicitors.

To achieve faster, more efficient, and more targeted complaints handling, paper claims the government must focus on a simplified customer journey, not institutions and legislative detail. A consultation should focus on the key questions:

a)  Is it time for a single independent body to handle all aspects of complaints?

b)  If not, how could stages and hand-overs be dramatically reduced – for example, a single investigation covering service and conduct, even if conduct is still prosecuted at an Independent tribunal?

c)  How many chances of appeal should there be, and is it time to consider the Sheriff Appeal Court as a more proportionate forum than the Court of Session for consumer disputes

The SLCC contends other areas should also be explored such as:

* Whether complaints bodies should have more discretion, with appropriate safeguards, and less prescriptive legislation;

* How to ensure that compensation awarded is paid to the consumer;

* How issues of unfair fees should best be addressed;

* Whether it is time to move from “one size fits all” regulation to a focus on the areas of greatest consumer risk, engaging experts on how to tackle high risk areas;

* The appropriate balance between professional regulation and market regulation;

* And whether the SLCC should have the power to issue rules on how lawyers should handle complaints at first tier, and the power to impose “strict liability” offences where they do not have, or follow, their own internal process.

Reimagine Regulation – Appendices & further research:Following on from claims put forward in the SLCC’s call for a consultation, the regulator contends a framework Act allowing “proportionate and targeted” regulation would resolve complaints faster, benefiting consumers and lawyers; resolve complaints more cost efficiently, reducing the SLCC’s operating costs paid for by the profession; increase the effectiveness of redress, a key public protection; reduce risk to consumers; and increase market confidence.

Commenting on the SLCC’s call for what some dubbed a window dressing exercise, former Law Society Director and now SLCC Chief executive Neil Stevenson said: “This is not about criticising current institutions or approaches – all organisations involved work hard to make the system work as best it can, and Scotland has an internationally well respected legal sector. However, after years of minor reforms we believe it’s time to engage the Scottish public and legal community on what results we are trying to achieve with regulation and complaints handling, and the simplest and most efficient way to do that. We hope this paper provokes broad discussion, and that the fantastic opportunity of a review of current arrangements looks at big issues and not just adjusting technical detail with the current model.”

SLCC chair Bill Brackenridge said: “There is much to be proud of, but we are frustrated at a system which is more complex and legalistic than it needs to be. Based on feedback from lawyers and consumers, and drawing on expert evidence, we believe any consultation should aspire to improve the current system.”

Brackenridge continued: “Last year we helped hundreds of consumers reach an early settlement, and some areas of our work, like mediation, get hugely positive feedback from lawyers and consumers alike. We awarded over £400,000 of redress, but we also dismissed cases which were clearly unmerited, providing independent assurance and confirmation that a lawyer has actually provided an acceptable service.”

Despite claims of high compensation payments, neither Mr Brackenridge or the SLCC has published figures revealing actual financial losses suffered by clients, compared to settlements and compensation awarded by the SLCC to victims of rogue solicitors.

Reimagine Regulation

The current arrangements for legal complaints, and how complaint outcomes are used to improve standards in the legal sector, are too complex, involve too many stages, and pass through too many organisations.  Faster, more efficient, and better targeted regulation can be delivered, to the benefit of consumers and the sector, by significant legislative reform.

The SLCC’s paper Reimagine Regulation – SLCC priorities for a consultation on legal services regulation sets out six key priority areas we believe the government should consult on when they deliver on their commitment to launch a ‘consultation to review legal regulation’.  The changes would benefit both consumers and lawyers, by:

1. Unravelling the current complex complaints maze

2. Reducing statutory detail that focuses on processes, not outcomes for people

3. Ensuring that when redress is awarded the client receives it

4. Targeting risk, and not seeing all legal services as the same

5. Embedding the consumer principles

6. Learning from complaints and data to improve future outcomes

The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission claims their aim in this mainly public relations driven exercise – is to ensure that if there is a government consultation or review around the regulation of legal services then the key issues we set out are opened up for debate by consumers, the public and lawyers.  Final decisions on these issues are for the government and for parliament.

Scottish Ministers have so far not commented on whether they will launch any loaded consultation on the SLCC’s published paper.

Get involved

The SLCC has issued a call for consumers and the legal profession to become involved in the debate:

If you are interested in this area and wish to assist the debate then you can:

* publish an article discussing our ideas

* invite us to come to speak to you, or ask to visit us, or for us to send further information

* Contact your MSP or your professional body

* blog or tweet – copy us in @slcccomplaints and use the hashtag #ReimagineRegulation

* share views with the SLCC by email to consult@scottishlegalcomplaints.org.uk

Previous media investigations, reports and coverage of issues relating to the SLCC can be found here: Scottish Legal Complaints Commission – A history of pro-lawyer regulation.

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