Contemplating complaints

Stephen Ward meets a woman who wants to be of help when it's you against your lawyer
The permanently locked security door and the entryphone seem odd for a quiet backstreet in Leamington Spa. They shield the Solicitors Complaints Bureau, symbolising how angry people can become when a relationship with their lawyer goes wrong.

They have usually gone to a solicitor as a last resort. If the matter is not resolved, their original anger over divorce, a will or a dispute with a neighbour increases and is directed at the new scapegoat, the lawyer. If they complain about the lawyer and fail to obtain satisfaction, they may become really angry.

After five years at the centre of the target, Veronica Lowe, director of the bureau, believes this spiral of anger can be changed by reorganisation, but that the change must be wider than within the bureau itself. She has written the Law Society a 90-page report, Quo Vadis, analyising problems and outlining options. The biggest problem is the society's cost, which grew to more than £11m last year, and now eats up more than a third of the registration fees paid by solicitors.

The Law Society's Adjudication and Appeals Committee will discuss the report formally on 27 February. After that anything is possible.

"It really is time we and the solicitors' profession started to work out how complaints should properly and effectively be handled within the next decade, given the changes within the profession that are occurring and given the changing regulatory climate in the country," Ms Lowe explains.

Ten years ago the bureau was set up at arm's length from the Law Society, which had previously handled complaints in house and wanted to give a greater appearance of independence. But the public remains unconvinced.

"There is inevitably going to be a perception that we are not independent when in fact, operationally, we are," she insists. "But because we carry out the policies of the professional body, those policies are not in themselves going to produce maximum complainant satisfaction."

The report even-handedly discusses the pros and cons of all the options, including giving the existing bureau complete autonomy. But she appreciates that is unlikely to be acceptable to a majority of solicitors. "It is a very difficult thing for a profession to decide to be brave enough to set up an independent body whose finances it does not control, and with a board of people which may prove to be much more independent than the profession itself actually wants."

That option was recommended by a 1986 report by the consultants Coopers & Lybrand and again by the Law Society's lay committee in 1989. Ms Lowe believes, with hindsight and the benefit of five years in the job, that both rejections were wrong.

But she recognises that a more likely route for the future will be a drastic improvement within the existing framework. "If we're looking to maintain and improve the status quo, which certainly is an equally valid option, then we're going to have to base that on something like the creation of a compliance authority, which sets standards, including for complaints handling, within the solicitors' profession and monitors them. We'd still handle the most serious complaints, but we'd expect the majority of complaints to be dealt with at firm level, with our assistance and advice. So we would step back from handling individual complaints, but we would set standards and the framework by which complaints were dealt with by the firms."

Complaints handling should not be seen by solicitors as something done by others, Ms Lowe says. It should be something they do automatically, like any well-run business in the Nineties. Public bodies themselves are expected to provide higher levels of consumer satisfaction, she says. "After all, one central part of the regulatory climate is to make sure consumers get an appropriate standard of service, and if they have a problem, they have a very well-operated complaints mechanism that enables them to resolve that problem."

If that cannot be the case, then the consumer complainant must receive compensation for that failure. "I would like to see a greater attention to client care, and satisfactory complaints handling at the level of individual firms," she says. A large number of the 20,000 complaints handled by the bureau each year are over costs. A bill arrives and is bigger than expected. "I would like us to have much tougher policies on solicitors revealing costs in advance," Ms Lowe says.

Even if it worked, would there not be a period in which things got worse before they got better, before solicitors changed their culture? "I don't deny there would be a transitional period."

To make that work the bureau would have sanctions - it already possesses a whole battery of powers, both regulatory and statutory, which are delegated to it by the Law Society. "It would be important to lay down the right framework at firm level to ensure that standards are adequate and that a complaint is dealt with promptly and fairly."

Similar regulatory authorities, such as the personal investment authority, could provide a model. "It has procedures for ensuring that complaints are dealt with by their members within a certain time frame, with certain components, and if they are not dealt with satisfactorily, the complainant has a right of compensation by the member firm for not having followed guidelines, never mind the substance of the complaint."

But she foresees opposition from solicitors to forcing them to change. "It's a very large profession [60,000 practising members at the last count], much larger probably than many others with regulatory bodies, and one may therefore say the compliance authority idea is a good one and is logical but in practice it is going to be difficult and expensive to run because of the size of the profession."

Ms Lowe believes much of the criticism of the current complaints handling is unjustified, particularly that voiced by the National Consumer Council, which two months ago published a scathing attack on the bureau, saying it favoured solicitors, deterred legitimate complaints and erected unnecessary barriers. The report was highly critical of delays in resolving issues, and said even the most straightforward cases often took months to resolve. Ms Lowe is determined that Quo Vadis should not be seen as a response to what she describes as a report based on inaccurate data using unreliable methods.

"There is certainly some criticism within the profession at the moment, which has seized on the NCC report as a demonstration that the bureau is ineffective," she says.

Perhaps if the bureau were given a more realistic brief, its front door might be symbolically unlocked.

The options under discussion by the Solicitors Complaints Bureau

Abolition: Complaints would be handled by the Law Society, as before 1986, losing apparent independence. No obvious cost saving if service remained the same.

Independence: Law Society would still have to fund it but would lose control, clashing with its role as solicitors' trade union.

Contracting out: "Less serious" complaints could be passed to other bodies, reducing the bureau's budget and workload. Outside accountants could take over checking solicitors' books. Local law societies might handle solicitor v solicitor disputes. Citizens Advice Bureaux could take some lay complaints. Cost, consistency of treatment and expertise could all be problems.

Decentralisation: A network of regional complaints bodies might be quicker, but potentially more expensive and less consistent.

Compliance authority: Firms would have higher standards of care and complaints handling, and the bureau would act as a health and safety authority for monitoring and enforcing good practice.