Lawyers `poor' at handling complaints

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The Independent Online
The Law Society's handling of complaints against solicitors is so poor that it risks losing the right to regulate the profession, the legal services watchdog warned yesterday in a scathing report.

Michael Barnes, the Legal Services Ombudsman, spotlighted the society's own research showing that two-thirds of those complaining to the semi- independent Solicitors Complaints Bureau remained "very dissatisfied", and declared that "something fundamental" was wrong with the system.

Barristers were almost as bad, living a "blinkered existence", unaware of the distress caused to clients by brusque treatment.

But as far as continuing self-regulation is concerned it is solicitors who are drinking in the legal equivalent of the last chance saloon.

Launching the fifth Legal Services Ombudsman report since the office was set up in 1991, Mr Barnes accused solicitors of adopting a "legalistic and defensive stance" when faced with complaints instead of settling them quickly if they were at all justified. "This may be the Law Society's last chance to get complaints handling right. If further research in a few years' time shows that not much has changed, the pressure for a completely independent, one-stop, complaints system is likely to become irresistible."

Under the system aggrieved clients must first complain to the Solicitors Complaints Bureau, or for barristers the General Council of the Bar, and for licensed conveyancers the Council for Licensed Conveyancers.

If they are not satisfied they can complain to the Ombudsman who investigates the handling of the complaint and may also investigate the original matter giving rise to it. During 1995 complaints to Mr Barnes rose by 31 per cent compared to the previous year.

Mr Barnes called for the system of "rebukes" to be replaced by fines if the public were to have confidence that the procedure were not biased in favour of solicitors. All lawyers should also give adequate warning about the risks of embarking on litigation at the outset.

He warns would-be clients to take "particular care" when placing instructions with solicitors who claim expertise in foreign property transactions.

All lawyers should take care not to assume a "professional superiority", while barristers "must accept liability for distress and inconvenience caused to lay clients by the unacceptably late return of a brief" .

Mr Barnes recommended payment of compensation of between a few hundred to more than pounds 5,000 by the lawyers involved in 72 of the cases referred to him, and of between pounds 50 and pounds 500 by the professional body in a further 56. He recommended that the professional body reconsider the complaint in 71 cases. Criticism was recorded in a further 70 cases. Mr Barnes decided to take no action in a further 842 investigations.

A Law Society spokesman said: "Give us a chance. We are improving and the bureau is to be relaunched at the end of the summer."

9 Fifth Annual Report of the Legal Services Ombudsman 1995; pounds 8.25; HMSO.