Lawyers face £1m bill over complaints

The Law Society was warned yesterday that it faces fines of up to £1m if it fails to improve its record for settling grievances between lawyers and their clients.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, told the Law Society, which regulates 100,000 solicitors in England and Wales, that it had not established an effective complaints handling system.

Under powers contained in the Access to Justice Act 2000, the complaints arm of the Law Society is to be overseen by a new legal services complaints commissioner. The commissioner, named yesterday as Zahida Manzoor, the legal services ombudsman, will have powers to levy fines if the Law Society "fails to comply with agreed plans for improvements in complaints handling''. She will also be able to set new targets for dealing with complaints.

Lord Falconer said the fines would only be levied as a last resort, but would have to be large enough to act as an "effective stick''. He said the culture of law firms not taking complaints seriously enough "had to change". He added: "Some solicitors are poor at dealing with complaints, as is the process [with] which the complaints are dealt with ... complaints have to be taken seriously enough.''

Last year the Office for the Supervision for Solicitors, the Law Society body which handles complaints, received 14,880 grievances about poor service and conduct. Only 46 per cent of all complaints received this year have been closed within three months of receipt.

The Law Society said it was disappointed by the decision to appoint a commissioner. A spokesman said: "It is not clear how this can help. Our complaints handling has improved significantly over recent years."