The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission’s strategy consultation has sparked an argument over its proper role in setting standards for the profession

To what extent should the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission seek to set standards for the legal profession, as respects client relations in general or specifically in relation to complaints handling?

The issue was raised in the SLCC’s recent strategy consultation, covered extensively at Journal, February 2016, 12, and has provoked a difference of opinion between the SLCC and the Law Society of Scotland.

Stick to the basics: Society

In its response, the Society called on the SLCC to focus on better performance of its core complaint-handling functions. It argued that the SLCC had failed to set out the assumptions on which the strategy was based, and challenged the premise of aiming to improve trust and confidence in legal services, as the Society’s own research shows a high level of satisfaction among the public.

In the Society’s view, the proposed strategy “risks giving the impression that the SLCC is increasingly motivated to spend time and resources on discretionary activity outwith its formal remit”. The SLCC should focus on complaint-handling standards rather than service standards; it would be going beyond its remit to move into audit of and recommendations for individual firms; it would not be appropriate to create another fund or insurance scheme to cover unpaid orders for client compensation; and it is not for the SLCC to “lead the debate on the overall regulation of legal services”.

Chief executive Lorna Jack commented: “The core statutory functions of the SLCC are to act as a gateway for all legal complaints, deal with service complaints and carry out its statutory oversight duties. It is essential that the organisation focuses on these.

“However, looking at the overall picture in both the strategy and the plan for the next year, we are concerned at the seeming lack of the underlying context for the new strategy. We are not clear why the SLCC has prioritised certain areas of work, and while we welcome the mention of delivering early resolution of cases, there is little on how it intends to improve its performance in its core complaints-handling role.

“We appreciate the need for the SLCC to work in the interests of consumers, as we must also do, but it has to pay equal attention to the legal profession. It is not sufficient to solely focus on building trust among the public, particularly when there is research to show high levels of trust in the legal profession overall and satisfaction in the work they carry out for clients. For the system to work effectively, there must also be a building of trust among the legal profession in the SLCC’s ability to address matters fairly with no bias towards any one side.”

“Wider responsibilities”: SLCC

The assumptions behind the Society’s comments were challenged in turn by the SLCC.

Chief executive Neil Stevenson accepted that, “with hindsight”, the initial proposals did not communicate clearly enough the SLCC’s aims for the complaints process and its own performance – though the document contained a firm commitment to improvement – but argued that it was right to lobby for legislative improvement where this would benefit lawyers and consumers.

However, the SLCC would “strongly contest” points made about its focus. “Our Act sets out many wider responsibilities beyond complaints, and we have powers to undertake other work to support our core role,” he observed. “It is not surprising that lawyers and consumer groups have different views on priorities – our role is to balance those.”

Stevenson did not accept that the SLCC was going beyond its remit. “Our board were frankly surprised that there was a suggestion our job was only to handle complaints, and not to contribute to debate on what standards should be. We have a bank of over 8,000 complaints, which lawyers, and indirectly consumers, have paid for and we believe that a modern approach to regulation should see this as a valuable resource to be mined for information to help future consumers. So some projects will stay firmly on the agenda.”

He continued: “Few of the responses made reference to the legislative changes that came into force last year to establish a statutory SLCC consumer panel... There was a disappointing lack of comment on consumer issues generally.” People with less knowledge of legal matters and legal processes might need additional support to engage in the complaints process, and the SLCC also had concerns about consumers failing to receive redress, lack of clarity around fees and a lack of learning from complaints.

“When we see the same issues happen time and again to clients and solicitors, costing them both in terms of our process, it does not seem wise to keep the status quo where there may be simple fixes,” he commented.

Stevenson promised more engagement before the SLCC finalises its plans.

Time limits set to change

The SLCC board is likely this month to adopt a proposal that from 1 July 2016, clients should have three years rather than one (or six months from the conclusion of a firm’s own investigation) to raise a complaint.

More at Journal online news for 25 March: click here to view.

The Author
The Society’s response, and the SLCC’s rejoinder, were first reported in Journal online news: click on the links for reports.
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