Professional Conduct Committee's work considering complaints of unsatisfactory professional conduct in the year since the first such case was dealt with

A number of censures have been issued under the new system for dealing with complaints about the unsatisfactory professional conduct of solicitors, according to Mary McGowan, Head of Regulation Liaison at the Society.

The new category was introduced when the system of complaints changed in October 2008. Under the reforms, all complaints go first to the Scottish Legal Services Commission, which investigates service issues. Conduct complaints, including unsatisfactory professional conduct, are passed back to the Society to investigate.

The Society’s Professional Conduct Committee dealt with its first case under the new system in July last year, but, says McGowan, a clear pattern of complaints is yet to emerge. She commented: “Of the trends that are apparent, there has been a higher percentage than previously of third-party complaints, often involving matrimonial disputes and also claims of gazumping/ gazundering.

“A number of censures and fines have been issued to solicitors for unsatisfactory professional conduct. These findings are serious in themselves, though it is worth bearing in mind that an accumulation of these can lead to the more familiar and severe decision to prosecute professional misconduct before the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal.”

McGowan explained that the committee had closed 28 cases during the year, with five findings of unsatisfactory professional conduct upheld and four fines levied, totalling £960. No action was taken in the remainder of the complaints. A further 17 cases were closed when complainers withdrew complaints.

The Society continued to handle large numbers of complaints referred under the old system, closing 1,282 such cases during the same 12-month period. “There was inevitably going to be a time lag as everyone adapted to the opening of the SLCC and introduction of the new complaints system”, McGowan observed.

“Also, hybrid complaints involving both service and conduct issues may have taken longer to arrive because they are usually dealt with by the Commission before the Society.

“Overall, the numbers throughout the year were perhaps lower than expected, but the cases are now starting to come through.”

She acknowledged that both the Society and the SLCC were on a learning curve in dealing with the new legislation, which has prompted a number of appeals by the Society in respect of SLCC decisions. A judgment on the first of these is awaited.

She added: “The cases considered in the past year have involved issues such as delays in responding to clients and complying with mandates, failure to settle witness fees promptly, and bounced rental cheques.

“Yet solicitors should be aware that, as well as a censure, unsatisfactory professional conduct can now lead to a fine of up to £2,000, compensation of £5,000 and an order to undergo training.

“The Society is running a series of workshops in the autumn aimed at client relations partners, to ensure they are aware of the simple steps that can help to avoid these penalties.”

  • Craig Watson
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