Law firms refuse fair hearing for clients' complaints

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The Independent Online

Four out of five law firms told to set up an internal complaints handling procedure to deal with unhappy clients have "thrown the (request) letters in the bin".

Four out of five law firms told to set up an internal complaints handling procedure to deal with unhappy clients have "thrown the (request) letters in the bin".

The figure, which emerged at the Law Society's annual conference held in London over the weekend, shows that some sections of the legal profession are still failing to take complaints seriously, despite a Government-imposed deadline for the Law Society to put its complaints procedures in order by the end of the year.

Jim Wagstaff, director of the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors, said letters asking firms to comply with Law Society's complaints rules were being "thrown in the bin".

The Government wants the Law Society to crack down on the worst offenders. If the Law Society has failed to reduce its backlog of complaints to 6,000 by the end of the year, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, has threatened to invoke statutory powers to impose outside regulation on the profession.

After a meeting, Mr Wagstaff said that tougher action needed to be taken against firms which failed to respond to the letters, and recommended imposing costs and penalties against them.

The conference also heard that around 250 firms generated 2,500 complaints from a total of roughly 8,000 client complaints a year.

Michael Napier, the Law Society president, said he favoured a principle of "polluter pays" in which the worst offenders pay compensation to the profession.

The Law Society has successfully reduced its complaints backlog to under 8,000, and says it now has a reasonable chance of meeting the Government's target .

Yesterday, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, a leading Liberal Democrat peer, appealed to the Government to rectify the imbalance between City and legal aid rates of pay. He said: "As a society we've got to find a way of paying viable rates for legal aid work.

But Ronnie Fox, a City-based solicitor and a senior partner at City law firm Fox Williams, said: "The harsh fact is that if you don't want to be a legal aid solicitor, then don't be one."