Solicitors want to restrict inquiries into client complaints

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The Independent Online

Solicitors are planning to limit the right to investigate them for rude or sloppy work in a move that is bound to infuriate ministers, who have threatened to take away the solicitors' right to govern themselves if they do not improve their record on handling complaints.

The Law Society is considering proposals to exclude many complaints from the responsibility of the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS), the profession's official watch-dog. It will leave thousands without a means of complaining against their solicitor.

A number of senior members of the Law Society council are concerned that they are paying too much to investigate complaints of inadequate professional service, which can attract a fine as high as £5,000.

Robert Sayer, the former Law Society president who is championing the move, wants to limit the powers of investigation of the Law Society and the OSS to only matters of serious professional misconduct. This, he says in an article in the Law Society's Gazette, would save the profession more than £10m annually ­ worth a £100 reduction of the price of the solicitor's practising certificate.

"Inadequate professional service is not about misconduct, negligence or even incompetence. It's about human error, the occasional minor mistake or simple misunderstandings that affect every business and which every one of us will be guilty at times in our career. Turning them into punishable offences is an overreaction," Mr Sayer said.

Last year, an independent report concluded there was a need to beef up the OSS powers to investigate and punish firms who provide inadequate service. It found there was "little convincing evidence" that the current system had changed the attitude of firms to 'service'. It said: "Clients have often had to deal with a hostile solicitor's firm and a dramatic loss of faith in the professional dealing with them."

Random client comments referred to in the report, published by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, suggested the perception remains that solicitors who are investigating solicitors always looked after their own. The report said: "The occasionally cavalier attitude of practitioners to clients' complaints and OSS investigations is shocking."

Mr Sayer wants the market to "weed out" firms that disappointclients and let the OSS get on with investigating serious misconduct. The power to investigate inadequate service, Mr Sayer says, was an "experiment which has failed".

If there is enough support for his proposal at the Law Society's annual meeting on 12 July Mr Sayer will ask for a postal ballot of 80,000 solicitors but he faces strong opposition from the Society's leadership and other council members who vowed to vote against any attempt to clip the wings of the OSS.