The Legal Services Board have published an interesting summary of research on the legal services market which is well worth a read. Especially if you a member of the legal profession, aren’t really up for the vigorous competition coming your way and like getting depressed about the future. There is, though, one possible good news story which deserves a bit of attention which is an apparently dramatic reduction in the number of complaints made against solicitors.
In general the level of complaints against solicitors has been travelling inexorably upwards for years. The trend continued up until the creation of the Legal Ombudsman (LeO). In the year prior to its creation the Legal Complaints Service, which dealt with solicitors’ complaints, received close to 21,000 complaints. In the first six months of its operation, LeO accepted 3,768 complaints. Not all of those would be against solicitors. One would have expected, all things being equal, for them to have had about 10,500 complaints against solicitors in a six month period. The obvious question is, why is the number so low?
The discontinuity is not remarked upon in the Legal Ombudsman’s report. Which states this with regard to the figures:
In the six months since we opened, 38,155 people contacted us by phone, email and letter. Of these, we accepted 3,768 complaints into the Ombudsman scheme for investigation.
We saw high volumes of contacts initially, which we think is due to the publicity we achieved around our launch and also possibly to a pent-up demand, with people choosing to wait to contact a new, independent, Ombudsman scheme rather than complaining under the old arrangements. There is also a seasonal variation to the numbers of people contacting us. We are monitoring the volumes of contacts and cases closely, but these statistics suggest that it is too early to tell what volumes we will see in the future.”
The story this tells is of pent up demand, not demand having dissipated dramatically. It may be that LeO is taking a very much more robust view on consumer complaints (there were 38,155 contacts from potential complainants by phone email of letter). It may be that LeO has a lower profile than the SRA or Law Society has had (and by virtue of that the Legal Complaints Service may itself have had) but other data suggests that LeO’s profile is quite high with the general public; so whilst that may be part of the explanation it is probably not all of it.
It may also be possible, that this reflects an improvement in first tier complaints handling by solicitors or a dramatic reduction in the the underlying volume of complaints. The significant contraction in the residential conveyancing market, in particular, would have affected complaints levels but it is difficult to see how this could lead to such a dramatic reduction. Similarly, a conversion to the virtues of client centred complaint practices of the strength necessary to affect this kind of drop in the numbers would have to be positively Damascene. The explanation must be either to do with consumer behaviour being affected by LeO taking over and/or a significant difference in the way LeO deals with would-be complainants. As a major driver of the legal service reform was the (alleged, but rather well -evidenced) inability of the solicitors’ profession to deal with its own complaints, one would expect the reason for the drop to be investigated thoroughly and the reasons for it either proclaimed as evidence of the success of a new regime (if these figures continue) or as a signal that something else is going on.