Client Relations Committee convener tells of latest initiatives by the Society to deal with client complaints
The annual report of the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman, and The Law Society of Scotland’s response to it, always has a distinct air of déjà vu, but this year the Justice I Committee’s inquiry into the future regulation of the legal profession adds a hitherto absent feeling that this time things really are about to change.

In fact, the Society’s client relations team are attempting to anticipate areas ripe for change by implementing a series of reforms designed to reduce the time taken to resolve disputes.

New convener of the client relations committee, Perth solicitor Alan Davies, is charged with guiding a process of reform and reiterating the message to the profession that there are positive steps they can take to prevent complaints reaching the stage where they arrive on the desk of the client relations office.

“The profession shouldn’t be afraid of complaints. The idea of course is to avoid them if possible, but realistically the pace of modern life and the number of solicitors and clients involved means that complaints will be forthcoming”, said Alan Davies.

Accepting that a certain level of complaints is inevitable, the issue is then how to deal with them. Clearly it is preferable if the complaint can be dealt with at the firm’s level, before it reaches the Law Society.

“Sometimes a degree of pragmatism will be necessary and to recognise that legitimate complaints do exist.”

Still at the root of most complaints is a lack of communication from solicitor to client and a failure to provide basic information to clients.

To some extent that has been addressed by use of terms of business letters, and Davies says anecdotal evidence suggests this is a good method of avoiding typical complaints such as people getting bills that they regard as unexpectedly high or which lack sufficient detail.

“If complaints are dealt with promptly and politely with a recognition that there may be some ground to it, it can often be resolved.

“The kind of thing that often mushrooms is often as simple as the client getting the bill and being surprised at the amount. They might be perfectly content with the service they have received but they simply didn’t expect that kind of bill.

“Most complaints can de dealt with if you don’t bury your head in the sand and the very worst thing you can do is ignore the complaint or any subsequent correspondence from the Society.

“Often it can be a case of failing to keep the client advised of the ongoing progress of the transaction. The solicitor might well be beavering away in the background, yet fails to communicate to the client what’s happening and what difficulties are perhaps impeding further progress of their case. Equally in every court case there are winners and losers and the losers are inevitably unhappy with the outcome and may blame their solicitor.”

There has to be recognition that there are some difficult clients who will complain about any service – and indeed a small minority who are malicious. The so-called “Watchdog” effect may at least partly account for the 49% increase in the number of complaints made against solicitors as reported by the Ombudsman, part of a trend that saw complaints against lawyers over all increase by 57%.

“We are living in a more consumerist age where clients and customers generally demand quicker, more efficient and cheaper services, not only from the legal profession but all service providers.

“There are vexatious complaints and we all know clients who will never be happy. One of the most important roles of the modern solicitor is managing client expectations. If a client knows what to expect and you tell them, the likelihood of a complaint is lessened”, said Alan Davies.

The Client Relations Office continues to promote the use of client relations partners, someone who will deal with all complaints to the firm in a positive way. Issues of course remain as to how sole practitioners deal with complaints and Alan Davies suggests there may be merit in exploring setting up ad hoc arrangements with other sole practitioners if that is practicable.

Yet once a complaint does reach the CRO, one of the chief criticisms made by the Ombudsman was the “complexity of the investigation process”.

“That in itself can give an impression of bias – of being more in tune with the lawyer than ordinary person”.

Ombudsman Linda Costelloe Baker went on to criticise the length of time taken to investigate complaints and remarked “in the welter of correspondence, the issues that matter most to a complainant can be overlooked”.

A pilot project designed to address these criticisms will begin soon whereby once the complaint has reached the Society, the Client Relations Officer will become actively involved in attempts to conciliate. The aim is to resolve many disputes before they go as far as the client relations committee.

‘With some complaints correspondence bats back and forward and the Society accepts that the process often takes too long and we acknowledge the criticism of the Ombudsman in that respect.

“If a complaint is dealt with speedily there is a greater prospect that the complainer will be satisfied with the outcome”, said Davies.

It might be suggested that the use of a legally qualified conciliator does nothing to resolve the problem of perceived bias and the possibility that the conciliation process will be conducted in impenetrable legalese from the complainer’s perspective. Is there a case for greater use of lay conciliators?

“We don’t want the complaints to become too technical or legalistic, but someone with a legal training is useful. We are looking at greater lay involvement, and it helps if the process isn’t dealt with solely by lawyers. Even in technical disputes a lay perspective can be helpful in getting to the essence of the complaint.”

However, while Davies recognises that the length of time taken to deal with complaints is often unacceptable, some of that can be put down to the absence of any delegated decision making power which means all decisions have to be made by the entire Council of the Society. It’s hoped that delegated powers will be introduced next year facilitating a leaner and quicker process.

In the meantime, the continuing programme of roadshows promoting the use of client relations partners, but also offering more general advice on dealing with complaints, will be available across the country.

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