Call to shake up legal complaints

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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

Martin Mears, president of the Law Society, wants to defy consumer groups and the legal watchdog by abolishing the Solicitors Complaints Bureau and dropping plans for an independent replacement.

He is suggesting the Law Society handles the 20,000 annual cases of misconduct, negligence and inadequate service itself, and delegates as many as possible to the solicitors themselves. Complaints should go to a Law Society section called the Client Care Unit.

Before Mr Mears' election this summer, the Law Society had recognised that the existing semi-autonomous Solicitors Complaints Bureau does not have public confidence. It planned to replace the solicitor who heads the bureau with a non-lawyer, and make the body answerable to an independent panel rather than to the Law Society. Mr Mears now faces a struggle within the organisation to see which view prevails.

The profession has an uphill struggle to convince the public that it can be trusted to handle complaints even-handedly. The National Consumer Council wrote a critical report last year saying the bureau favoured solicitors, deterred legitimate complaints , erected unnecessary barriers, and was far too slow. Yesterday the NCC's director, Ruth Evans, said: "We will continue to lobby for an independent Legal Services Complaints Council, containing a majority of non-lawyers appointed by the Lord Chancellor and chaired by a non-lawyer."

The official watchdog, the Legal Services Ombudsman, argues this week in his response to the Law Society's initial plans that there should be an independent complaints handling body but that the Law Society should deal with misconduct.