The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has challenged views that it should focus on complaint handling rather than wider professional standards, as it publishes the responses received to its consultation on future strategy.
In its draft strategy (click here for Journal feature) the body that deals with complaints against legal professionals set out desired new efficiencies in its operations and better awareness among the public, but also saw itself as promoting better relations between consumers and their lawyers and driving improvement in the way legal firms themselves handle complaints. The Law Society of Scotland in response argued that the SLCC had failed to set out the underlying assumptions behind its approach, and that it risked "giving the impression that the SLCC is increasingly motivated to spend time and resources on discretionary activity outwith its formal remit".
Neil Stevenson, the SLCC's chief executive, said its board was working through the feedback received, but four broad themes emerged where it could give "an early indication on how the feedback might influence future drafts".
He accepted that, "with hindsight", the proposals did not focus enough on communicating the SLCC's aims for the complaints process itself and its performance there. "We can rectify that immediately, as there is already a firm commitment to improvement on the first page of the strategy and we will look at adding further detail and context here", he stated. "That commitment extends to trying to achieve legislative change to make the process more efficient. We know ‘lobbying’ was not seen as our role by some, but when we see the costs and inefficiencies of the current statutory model we do feel it is right to raise these to help benefit lawyers and consumers.”
Mr Stevenson added that 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. It is not surprising that lawyers and consumers groups have different views on priorities – our role is to balance those. Comparisons were drawn with other organisations that are dramatically different to ours – and while the support for us benchmarking our performance is welcome, consumers and lawyers will benefit most when this is about real learning and improvement based on properly thought-out examples.”
He continued: “A second source of comments was how much project work we undertake. Our operating plan had a similar number of projects and similar funding and staffing to the last two years, but in the context of the strategy it may have looked more substantive." Increased costs projected in the budget consultation document largely related to extra temporary resource for handling individual complaints, and overall spend was reduced a small amount in the final budget submitted to the Parliament following feedback on one area of work.
Mr 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", he asserted. "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.”
As regards specific projects, he said the SLCC would amend or reduce some in light of comments received, and remove others, taking account of the consensus that they were not a priority. "I hope reducing the total number of projects also shows we are listening and that we agree that our complaints function remains our core focus.”
Finally, comments had been made about the SLCC's consumer focus and language, and whether projects went beyond its role. "Few of the responses made reference to the legislative changes that came into force last year to establish a statutory SLCC consumer panel, nor how they would interpret the role set out for that panel in statute", Mr Stevenson observed. "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.
He promised more engagement before the SLCC finalises its plans.