Law: This woman wants to work in a caring profession

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The woman brought in to mediate in complaints against lawyers is a cat-loving Arsenal supporter who says the profession needs to be less precious and become more focused on providing a service. By Grania Langdon-Down.

Ann Abraham, the new Legal Services Ombudsman, confesses to a "double edged fascination" for the legal profession.

"I feel admiration for its intellectual rigour but also amazement at the arrogance of the profession which sometimes behaves almost as a superior race," explains the woman who will be overseeing the handling of complaints against solicitors, barristers and licensed conveyancers.

However, despite her strong words and background as chief executive of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux for the last six years, she is keen to reassure the legal profession that she does not see her new role as a "champion of consumer rights" but as one of "holding the balance" between them and their clients.

"I feel it important to say that I see my role in terms of independence, objectivity and even-handedness. I am not coming in as a champion of consumer rights, rolling up my sleeves and sorting out the legal profession.

"But by even-handedness, I do not mean neutrality. It is a question of an equal-opportunities approach. My assumption isn't that the complainant is right and the lawyer is wrong. But if I see my role as making sure someone with a complaint gets a fair hearing, the chances are I am going to have to weigh in on behalf of the complainant because they are often in a much less strong position than the individual lawyer or professional body."

Ms Abraham, 45, who is moving with her cats from her Cambridge home to be closer to her new Manchester office, has a staff of 20, plus some investigating officers who work from home, and a budget of pounds 1.5m. A pre-requisite of the job is that she is not a qualified lawyer.

People dissatisfied with the way their complaint has been handled by the relevant professional body, or with its decision, have three months to submit their case for her consideration.

The sheer numbers of solicitors means they and their regulatory body, the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) which took over from the much-criticised Solicitors Complaints Bureau last year, will be her main customers.

Complaints against solicitors run at between 18,500 and 20,000 a year. Ms Abraham's predecessor Michael Barnes considered 1,282 cases last year. No further action was taken in 893 cases. But the SCB/0SS was formally criticised in 89 cases, asked to reconsider 124 and compensate 80 complainants. Compensation had to be paid by 108 solicitors.

The Bar Council is six months into its new disciplinary procedures, having appointed a lay commissioner in April with powers to award compensation of up to pounds 2,000 and order barristers to reduce, refund or waive their fees for poor service. Last year, Mr Barnes considered 106 cases, deciding no further action was needed in 95. The Bar Council, which receives about 500 complaints against barristers a year, was formally criticised in one, asked to reconsider three and told to pay compensation in one. Five barristers were asked to compensate complainants.

Mr Barnes put the Law Society and Bar Council on notice in his last annual report that they had very little time to make their new complaints systems work before the argument for a major shake-up became "irresistible".

Backbench MPs are already agitating for an independent statutory regulator to replace the OSS and are pressing for a parliamentary debate on the issue.

Zoe Etherington, press officer for the OSS, said the Law Society had guaranteed independence in the OBS's decision-making process through a more open selection of lay members. "The OSS is still funded by the profession but it is a step removed from it."

She said Ms Abraham had made it clear that she wanted solicitors to deal with complaints more effectively themselves and start putting themselves in their clients' position. "We are encouraging solicitors to do just that, for example with our client care guide and helpline for solicitors faced with a complaint they do not know how to resolve. It is nice to be coming at the problem from the same angle."

Mark Stubbs, secretary of the Bar's professional standards committee, said Ms Abraham was seen as a "strong, independent lady and a really first- rate choice for the post". However, they would be concerned if she took a more "interventionist" approach than her predecessor. "We are a self- regulating profession. The ethos of the ombudsman is to look over complaints once we have finished and take an independent view. But let us try and get it right first."

Ms Abraham does not pull her punches. "I think there are some real issues that the legal profession has to get to grips with. They need to see themselves as providers of a service. There is an awful lot of preciousness about self-regulation, with the legal profession one of its last remaining bastions. It is as though somehow or other, the rules that apply to customer care are not relevant."

She argues that at the most basic level, there is a strong business case for resolving complaints quickly before becoming locked in defensive correspondence.

"I don't have any illusions about the challenge there is in getting these messages across. Both professional bodies are making the right noises and the right moves - the test is whether there will be the right outcome."

She felt there was an irony about the gap between how the profession was perceived by the public and the reality. "In every high-street solicitors' firm and in every chambers there is extremely good work being done, as well as a huge amount of pro bono work. But if you look at surveys of which professions the public hold in esteem, lawyers come just above estate agents and way below doctors."

Ms Abraham has set herself three priorities - to ensure the quality of casework remains high, which will include improving the time it takes them to deal with complaints; communication with the legal profession, public and consumer bodies to get her messages across; and client care.

"I will measure my success in office by whether I can see a smaller proportion of complaints coming to me because they are being resolved at a much earlier stage."

She believes that an ombudsman's role has two parts - "processing the casework is only half the job, the other being drawing out trends and sending out messages about how to stop problems happening again."

However, she says arguments for change are only effective if they are grounded in experience and evidence and not preconceptions and prejudice, so she will be waiting to see what she finds before diving in.

She has further words of comfort for the profession: "I believe that a lot of change is achieved through persuasion rather than coercion, with only the occasional waving of a big stick."

As she settles into her new job, renewable after three years, Ms Abraham is reserving judgement on another of her interests, football. "I am an Arsenal supporter but I am taking advice around the office whether, having moved to Manchester, I should support Manchester United or City - or neither."

Legal Services Ombudsman, 22 Oxford Court, Oxford Street, Manchester M2 3WQ. Tel 0161-236 9532; fax 0161-236 2651.

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