Complaints against legal practitioners rose by 12% in the year to 30 June 2016, the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission reveals in its annual report, published today – though the number accepted as eligible fell slightly.
While new enquiries were down by nearly 500, from 2,771 to 2,292, complaints received rose from 1,009 to 1,132. Of these, 268 were considered premature (previous year, 90), in that the practitioner had not had a reasonable opportunity to deal with the complaint, 74 (132 in 2014-15) were out of time, 133 (down from 209) were adjudged "frivolous, vexatious or totally without merit", and 23 (up from seven) were deemed ineligible for another reason. A further 145 were resolved or withdrawn before an eligibility decision was taken.
Of the 408 eligible complaints (previous year, 414), 406 of which were against solicitors and two against advocates, nearly half (198) were categorised as hybrid, or raising both service and conduct issues – a practice since ruled ultra vires by the Inner House.
Of eligible complaints closed, 44 were resolved at mediation (down from 56, but a 75% success rate), 65 by report after investigation, 45 by conciliation at investigation, 18 were withdrawn at investigation, and 102 (down from 132) went to a determination of which 58 were upheld.
Complaints in hand at the end of the year jumped from 473 to 664.
Residential conveyancing was the most frequent area of complaint, at 23% of those received, followed by litigation (20%), executries, wills and trusts (15%), family law (12%) and crime (8% – though "relatively fewer" of these were accepted as eligible). Other categories of work, each comprising fewer than 5% of complaints, accounted for the remaining 22%.
Regarding the nature of the complaint, however, failure to communicate effectively was a clear leader at 43%, followed by failure to provide information (15%), failure to advise adequately (14%), delay (8%), failure to prepare adequately (6%) and failure to follow instructions (6%). Other categories made up 8% of cases.
The accounts for the year, also published today, disclose a net operating deficit of £114,000 on income down from £2.773m to £2.704m, and a deficit for the year after pension adjustments of £35,000.
In addition to its role as a gateway for complaints, the SLCC’s work in the year included outreach and audit work to support improved complaint handling in the legal profession. It also became a 50:50 by 2020 partner, which relates to gender equality on its board, and gained living wage accreditation.
Commenting on the rise in complaints, chairman Bill Brackenridge said: “This may represent a small number considering there are now around 11,000 working lawyers in Scotland, but we know that these complaints have often arisen out of stressful times in people’s lives. I’m pleased that our annual report shows that we’re delivering effective redress – over £320,000 in compensation, refunds and fee reductions – when people have been provided an inadequate professional service by their lawyer. It demonstrates that the legal sector will put mistakes right, while the 13% of complaints rejected as 'frivolous, vexatious or totally without merit' at our first stage shows that lawyers can be reassured that complaints with no substance won’t proceed against them.”
Chief executive Neil Stevenson added: “We focus every day on the delivery of a fair, efficient and effective complaints service for consumers and lawyers. However, it is right we also look at how that work is sustained and improved in the future, and the publication of the four year strategy and our proposals for legislative reform are big steps we have taken in evolving our work. There are opportunities for improvement ahead, as well as some real challenges for the future which we note in the report.”
Responding to the report, Lorna Jack, chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland, said: “There are hundreds of thousands of transactions carried out by solicitors every year and the legal sector generates around £1.4bn for the Scottish economy. While we cannot be complacent, particularly given the increase in complaints received by the SLCC, issues giving rise to complaints are very much in the minority.
“Although there has been a rise in the number of complaints received, there has actually been a slight drop in those deemed eligible by the SLCC over the last year. We will be looking closely at this year’s report to understand the reasons behind the complaints and work to ensure that we provide the right guidance and training for our members so that they can meet the high standards set by the Law Society and the needs of their clients.
“This annual report shows how critically important it is for the SLCC to focus on its core role and ensure the current backlog in processing complaints is reduced. There has been a 40% increase in complaints still in hand at year end, whilst the cost of running the SLCC has increased over the same period. As we have stressed to the SLCC throughout this year, this deterioration in performance needs to be reversed. The SLCC which is paid for by Scottish legal practitioners, needs to ensure it is working to become more efficient and is as effective as possible as the gateway organisation for all legal complaints."
Angela Grahame QC, Vice Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, observed: “Complaints against advocates remain a tiny proportion of complaints to the SLCC. When one considers the number of advocates and the amount of work they do on a daily basis, it is heartening to find only two complaints were deemed eligible for consideration by the SLCC.
“Complacency can never be allowed, however, and the Faculty continues to work closely with the SLCC on improving our own procedures and assisting the SLCC where possible.
“We are committed to providing an extremely high level of service to the public and would wish to reassure them of our continuous efforts to maintain and improve standards. With this in mind, the Faculty has now introduced a quality assurance scheme for all members, which leads the way among lawyers in the UK.”