Legal complaints body faces reform

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The Independent Online
The much-criticised body which handles complaints against solicitors faces comprehensive reform or even abolition.

A series of options proposed by the Solicitors Complaints Bureau itself will be considered later this month by the Law Society, which funds the bureau from fees that solicitors pay for their practicing certificates.

The bureau - which handles 20,000 cases against solicitors each year - was recently subjected to an attack by the National Consumer Council, which said it favoured solicitors, deterred legitimate complaints and erected unnecessary barriers. The NCC was highly critical of delays in resolving issues and said that even the most straightforward cases often took months to resolve.

Solicitors themselves, particularly those who generate few or no complaints, resent the increasing cost of the bureau, which has grown since it was set up in 1986 to more than £11m last year and now eats up more than a third of the fees paid by solicitors.

Even the title is likely to be altered. The bureau proposes changing its name to the Compliance Authority, while John Hayes, the secretary- general of the Law Society, suggests the Client Protection Agency.

The most likely reform, according to Mr Hayes, is to allow complaints to be investigated automatically only where there is "substantial evidence of misconduct". In other cases solicitors would be given 28 days to provide an explanation to the complainant. If they failed to do so, they would be fined. Complaints by one solicitor against another - nearly 5,000 a year - would be arbitrated by local law societies.

Veronica Lowe, the bureau's director for the past five years, has drawn up a 90-page report, "Quo Vadis", for the Law Society, analysing the problems and outlining various options. These range from abolition to the appointment of an independent body, not controlled by the Law Society but still paid for by solicitors' levies. Ms Lowe thinks this is unlikely to be accepted.

"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," she said.

She does not believe any of the options would save money, but believes many would give consumers greater satisfaction.

She said: "If the Law Society is looking to maintain and improve the status quo, then we're going to have to base that on something like the creation of a Compliance Authority, which sets standards . . . and monitors them.

"We'd still, of course, 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.