The number of complaints made to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission was little changed in 2020-21, but fewer were accepted for investigation, according to the Commission's annual report published today.

At the same time the Commission had fewer complaints still open at the end of the year, as it reduced the number of cases in hand.

The report reveals that 1,054 new complaints were received in the year to 30 June 2021 (1,033 concerning solicitors and 21 concerning advocates), up slightly from 1,036 in 2019-20, but 443 were accepted for investigation compared with 553 they previous year, and the number outstanding at year end was down from 436 to 388.

As for disposals, 196 were judged to be premature (down from 215), 180 were rejected at eligibility stage (down from 224), and a further 283 closed before a decision to accept or reject (down from 318). Service complaints accepted for investigation totalled 271 (down from 337), conduct complaints 93 (down from 155), and hybrid complaints 79 (down from 94).

More complaints were resolved by mediation (up from 25 to 66) – a success rate of 75% for mediation meetings – and a mediator assisted in a further 16 settlements (down from 20). A further 185 cases were settled during or after investigation stage (down from 201), and 131 went all the way to determination stage, at which 10 were upheld in whole (down from 14), 47 in part (down from 72), and 74 not at all (down from 112).

In its accounts the Commission reports a surplus of £533,108 on the year, largely due to a combination of higher than expected complaint levy income and lower than expected staffing costs.

Chief executive Neil Stevenson commented: "Alongside our continued work on efficiency, this year we have brought a keen focus on our customers, working hard to improve our customer service and accessibility. We’ve listened to and acted on customer feedback from both consumers and lawyers to make improvements to our service. We’ve taken action on the clarity of our written communications, learned from others about improving our accessibility, and set up a service experience team to drive further improvement.

"We’ve also built on our strong response to the impact of COVID-19 on our business, and used an agile approach to rapidly review our strategy and options around people, technology, property, and changing customer need and expectation. Working with our staff and stakeholders, we are excited about, and prepared for, a very different-looking future way of working.”

Chair Jim Martin added: "With continued strong performance across the business, the SLCC has a positive message to share. That should increase consumer confidence in the sector and its regulation, and reassure any legal professionals who are subject to a complaint that it will be dealt with promptly and fairly. It also meant that at the end of last year, we were able to reduce the levy for all lawyers, passing on the benefit of those gains to Scotland’s legal sector. While we need to assess incoming complaint numbers at the end of this calendar year, we are optimistic there may be further savings to pass on to at least some groups within the sector.

"Having achieved low complaint handling time and negligible backlogs in our system, this year we have focused our attention on reducing delays caused by some firms continuing to ignore their statutory duty to respond to our requests for client files. I hope by next year to be able to report an improved picture in terms of solicitors complying with this, and the impact that will have on our ability to start – and finish – investigations swiftly."

Mr Martin also said the Commission would be "engaging in the work to deliver much needed reform", stating: "On a daily basis we see how the current prescriptive legislation adds complexity and leads to poorer outcomes for the public and the profession. We’ll be putting forward positive proposals for improvement, and playing our part in the move towards a system of modern, agile legal regulation fit for 21st century Scotland."