Complaints against practising lawyers rose by 2% in the year to 30 June 2017, according to the latest annual report of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, published today.
While recognising that complaints form "a tiny proportion" of the number of transactions carried out for clients, the SLCC notes that the rise comes on top of a 12% rise the previous year – and that there is a continuing trend towards more complaints entering the later stages of its process. It prefers parties to attempt mediation before having their dispute resolved formally.
The year was marked by the Anderson Strathern appeal, in which the Court of Session ruled unlawful the SLCC's previous practice of classifying certain single issue complaints as hybrid (raising issues of both service and conduct), and subsequent litigation with the Law Society of Scotland over the SLCC's power to then reclassify cases, in which the court found for the Commission. The report says this resulted in a large number of complaints being suspended, with no progress made until the ruling in June.
Over the year, complaints received rose from 1,132 to 1,155. A total of 414 were accepted for conduct or service investigation, or a combination of the two (previous year 408), and 171 (compared with 226) were deemed ineligible as time barred or being "frivolous, vexatious or totally without merit". A further 251 (previous year 188) were resolved, withdrawn or discontinued without a formal investigation. Solicitors accounted for 410 of the complaints accepted and advocates for the other four.
A mediated resolution was achieved in 27 complaints (44 the previous year), a lower success rate than previously at 58%. Sixty three were resolved during or at the conclusion of the investigation stage (down from 128), and the number receiving a final determination by a committee of commissioners fell from 102 to 95, of which 44 (down from 58) were upheld in whole or part. The number in hand at the year end rose from 664 to 807, having jumped from 473 at the start of the previous year.
Residential conveyancing was again the most frequent area of complaint, at 22% of those received, closely followed by litigation (21%), then executries, wills and trusts (14%), family law (10%) and crime (7%). Commercial property and leasing accounted for 4%, as did "personal conduct". Other categories of work, each comprising fewer than 3% of complaints, accounted for the remaining 18%.
Regarding the nature of the complaint, however, failure to communicate effectively was a clear leader at 26% (but down from 43%), followed by failure to advise adequately (20%, up from 14%), failure to provide information (14%, down from 15%), failure to prepare adequately (11%, up from 6%), failure to follow instructions (10%, up from 6%), and delay (unchanged at 8%). Other categories made up 6% of cases.
The accounts for the year, also published today, disclose a net operating loss up from £114,000 to £194,000, though income rose from £2.714m to £2.763m. Net assets fell from £675,000 to £421,000.
SLCC Chair Bill Brackenridge, who completes his term of office next month, commented: "The SLCC has sought to drive efficiency within the current statutory process whilst making bold calls for reform. This year we were pleased to see the Scottish Government announce an Independent Review of the Regulation of Legal Services, and we will continue to contribute to work to improve the regulatory and complaints system for consumers and lawyers."
Chief executive Neil Stevenson added: “This has been a challenging year, with significant litigation that has driven delays and costs and which was outwith our control. We are delighted the court upheld our position, and hope we can now move beyond some of these challenges to work with others in the sector to improve confidence in regulation.
"On a personal level one of the organisational achievements we all contributed to, and which I am most proud of, is a significant improvement on our staff engagement survey results. I’m also delighted that we are in the rare position of gender pay parity."