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Legal Services Board urges regulators to get tough on complaints

Michelle Garlick, Head of Compli Friday, March 11, 2016

60 seconds with Michelle Garlick, partner

The Legal Services Board (“LSB”) has recently published guidance to frontline regulators such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Bar Standards Board to encourage them to get tough with lawyers who do not handle client complaints properly.

The consultation covers proposed changes to first-tier complaints handling requirements and it proposes that the SRA and other approved regulators should set clear and concise guidance for lawyers to help them with complaints handling and signposting.

Michelle, do you welcome the Legal Services Board guidance?

Well, as I seem to be discussing complaints and the Legal Ombudsman quite regularly at the moment, any guidance to improve complaint handling can only be a positive step in the right direction!

So what difference do you think the regulators getting ‘tough’ will make to firms in practise?

It could mean that we face new demands to inform clients about how to complain, the concern being that too many customers are still in the dark about where to turn.

The Code of Conduct, Outcomes 1.9-1.11, advises that clients should be informed in writing at the beginning of their instructions of their right to complain, how to do so and how to complain to the Legal Ombudsman. The Code also states that clients’ complaints should be dealt with ‘promptly, fairly, openly and effectively’.

However, according to the Legal Ombudsman satisfaction surveys, fewer than a quarter of clients heard about the service through their lawyer so the LSB is calling for the regulators to issue guidance regarding improving communication with clients, which will include client care letters.

Through our auditing service, we see many examples of client care letters not having been sent out to clients and this failure could become problematic for lawyers (even if it isn’t considered a problem at present) if the requirements are tightened up. Similarly, if the regulators are going to be expected to analyse complaints records of law firms generally, this might well cascade down to become more of a requirement of the law firms too.

On the other hand, I think the LSB needs to also appreciate that there are times when, notwithstanding the clear signposting within client care letters, there is a tendency for clients simply not to read client care letters which contains the information?!

Do you think that a focus on complaints handling by the regulators will ultimately improve client care?

If the regulators become more involved in the analysis of complaints data and positive guidance regarding the handling of complaints is issued it will hopefully lead to an improvement in client care. However, perhaps the mantra for firms to adopt would be ‘get it right first time’ and ensure that their complaints procedures and relevant LeO information are communicated effectively to their clients in the first place and that complaints are analysed internally to ensure that firms learn from mistakes and improvements are implemented.