Complaints swamp the Law Society

Legal profession: Regulatory body comes under fire for its handling of complaints about malpractice
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The Independent Online
AN INDEPENDENT agency may be established to police the legal profession in response to increasing criticism about the way the Law Society is handling self-regulation.

Martin Mears, a former president of the Law Society and a prominent critic of its self- policing, said yesterday: "There has been so much criticism of the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors [OSS] over the past 12 months and it all just bounces off them."

The OSS - the society's regulatory wing - investigates lawyers accused of malpractice. But it is having problems in coping with the 40,000- plus complaints lodged every year. Leaked documents reveal that last year, the OSS had a 5,000- file backlog and that the average completion time for a case was 27 weeks. Its quarterly results revealed it had failed to meet most of its targets.

The society says delays were caused by the flooding last year of the OSS's Leamington Spa headquarters. Nearly 2,000 files had to be dried out, it said.

The crux for the OSS will come in June when the legal services ombudsman, Ann Abraham, makes her annual report. Last year's report said the OSS needed to improve "significantly". In a letter last week to Chris Smith MP, who is acting for a constituent, Ms Abraham said it would be "premature" to comment so far in advance of publication. But, she said, it would "be more than probable that I will have to report that the OSS has failed to make the necessary progress".

The National Consumer Council's head of legal policy, Marlene Winfield, has already called for a review of the Law Society's policing powers and the establishment of an independent agency. "The roles of trade union and regulator are incompatible and Law Society rules are neither tough norspecific enough," she said.

The Scottish Consumer Council is seeking an independent body to take over policing and regulation from the Law Society of Scotland.

The Government has become frustrated with the Law Society's performance. In the Immigration and Asylum Bill, which was debated in the House of Commons on Monday, there are new powers for the Home Office to regulate solicitors. The move follows extensive complaints about the Law Society failing to crack down on solicitors running legal aid immigration rackets.

Michael O'Brien, the Home Office Immigration minister and a solicitor, said that after tense negotiations last year, the Home Office had extracted a promise from the Law Society to take tough action. "I don't want to use the phrase `supping at last-chance saloon' because it's hackneyed. But the Home Office have essentially done a deal with the Law Society. We have actually said, `All right, we will take powers in the Bill but if you don't do it, we will do it'. The Law Society have given us a commitment. I think if they put the resources into it and have the commitment, they are able to deliver."

In an attempt to still criticism, the OSS last week closed two solicitors' firms accused of milking legal aid funds in asylum cases. The Law Society is also to launch an accreditation scheme for solicitors conducting asylum cases.

The society says it is reviewing self-regulation. A spokesman, David O'Neill, said: "The main issues for the OSS, and the main source of complaints, has actually been about the handling of complaints over poor service. But things are on the table and ideas are being put forward. It is a bit too early for me to say what is going to come out, whether there are any preferred models, but people are thinking big."