Complaints to solicitors hit `wall' of red tape

Lawyers in the dock: Need for reform highlighted as two-thirds of clients unhappy with redress procedure
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The Independent Online

Legal Affairs Correspondent

People who complain about poor work by solicitors face a wall of delays, unhelpfulness and bureaucracy, a survey by the Law Society reveals today.

Solicitors themselves often ignore grievances completely, and the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau, the next stage for complainants, left most clients unhappy.

The damning findings come from written responses in a survey of more than 1,000 people who have tried to seek redress. Two-thirds of those whose cases had been settled through the bureau said they were "very dissatisfied" at the outcome.

Of those whose complaints had been referred back to solicitors themselves to handle, more than half were "fairly" or "very" dissatisfied.

Few thought the bureau was independent - most believed it was on the side of solicitors.

The profession is already committed to reforming complaints handling, partly because of the cost of processing more than 20,000 cases each year, which solicitors have to fund. The society is due to publish proposals for a new system in the spring, which would change the name of the bureau to the Supervisory Agency for Solicitors, and would expect solicitors to deal with complaints more effectively within the firm.

The head of the bureau,Veronica Lowe, has resigned in anticipation of the reforms with an pounds 80,000 pay-off. She has not yet been replaced.

The biggest number of complaints against solicitors were for excessive delay, followed by not responding to calls, instructions not being followed, excessive bills, not being warned about the cost in advance, and money or documents being kept too long.

Many solicitors were so reluctant to settle grievances that in two-thirds of cases complainants did not know their solicitors had an internal complaints procedure until they took the case to the bureau. Half of those who complained said their solicitor took no notice, or made no attempt to investigate or answer their grievance.

When complainants reached the bureau, their main comment was on the further delays and inattention they encountered. Two-thirds were not told how long their case would take.

When asked about the outcome of their complaints to the bureau, a quarter had been told the case could not be taken further, and another quarter did not know if the case was still being handled or not.

In a statement accompanying the report, the Law Society president, Martin Mears, said: "The survey makes a positive contribution towards practical reform of the bureau. It emphasises also the need for all solicitors to take their clients' complaints seriously."

Yesterday's report was welcomed by long-term critics of the profession's complaints handling. Michael Barnes, the Legal Services Ombudsman who is the arbiter in 10 per cent of the cases which go to the bureau, said he had been urging the Law Society to carry out a survey for years. The picture produced was bleak, he said. The procedures were too cumbersome and stronger enforcement powers were needed.

Ruth Evans, director of the National Consumer Council, said the results confirmed its analysis of the failings of the bureau in December 1994.

She said: "Until solicitors take more responsibility for dealing with complaints themselves, it will be impossible for the bureau to provide an adequate service for the most difficult cases."