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Law: A watchdog with no bite

Concern is growing about the poor performance of the solicitors' complaints body
ALAN FROGGATT, chief executive of chartered surveyors Richard Ellis, is not impressed by the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS). And he is not alone. Even the director of the OSS, Peter Ross, admits that the complaints body's quarterly performance figures were "disappointing". The figures showed that about 30,000 complaints were made against solicitors this year, and the results of how those complaints were dealt with were mixed.

Mr Froggatt is one of those 30,000 complainants. He was appointed executor of his cousin's pounds 200,000 estate in May 1997. The sole practitioner solicitor who was dealing with it sold the house last year and made an interim payment to beneficiaries.

"But," says Mr Froggatt, "during the course of this year, I felt that he had been slow in tidying up the rest of the estate."

Mr Froggatt represented himself as a normal client taking up a normal complaint, and did not mention his title or position.

Via the Law Society, he was directed to the OSS in July, and was told that as he appeared to have grounds for a complaint, he would be assigned a case officer.

When he heard nothing further, he made persistent calls in August and September to check on progress, and found out that no case officer had in fact been assigned.

In October, he wrote to the president of the Law Society Michael Mathews. Mr Froggatt was then contacted, only to be told that they could not find the file or trace the reference number.

That prompted a "salvo of letters" to the Law Society president again, to the OSS director, Peter Ross, and inevitably, to BBC television's Watchdog programme. An OSS employee contacted him and apologised for the delay, adding that the OSS was 27 weeks behind with 5,000 outstanding complaints that had not yet been allocated.

The OSS's figures confirm the backlog. One of its overall targets is to ensure that 90 per cent of straight-forward matters are dealt with within three months of receipt - in October, 53 per cent met the target, the month before, it was 49 per cent.

In other areas, Mr Ross says: "The results from the first quarter are mixed. Some areas of our work, such as interventions and serious conduct issues have met all the targets. In particular, complaints about poor service is an area which needs to be addressed."

He added that there had also been problems outside their control, such as a flood in the summer which affected the premises.

The OSS has already been the subject of calls from MPs that regulation of solicitors should be by an independent body. It has commissioned Professor Avrom Sherr and Richard Moorhead of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies to research the adequacy of its complaints procedures and consider whether the pounds 1,000 limit on compensation for complaints of inadequate professional service is sufficient. They will look at internal matters including training and are expected to report in mid-1999.

For the moment, the challenge, according to Mr Ross, is to ensure that the next quarter's figures are better. He has also called for better client care and better in-house complaints procedures as part of the solution to stemming the growing tide of complaints.

That has not helped Mr Froggatt. He says that the solicitor dealing with his cousin's estate will probably have finished dealing with the estate in the next few weeks - ironically, last week, Mr Froggatt was told that the OSS had allocated an officer to his case.

Froggatt says: "Maybe I am old-fashioned but I did not use my position because who you are shouldn't make a difference to how a complaint is dealt with. But I wanted them to know that I would write to the people who count to find out what was happening. And I still haven't heard from Watchdog yet."