LEADING ARTICLE: When lawyers let us down

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Imagine it: you've finally managed to sell your house. After months of waiting, the deal has been done and contracts have been exchanged. All those anxious months of waiting are over. The escape from negative equity is nigh. Then you find that the solicitor you put in charge of the transaction has made a terrible error and everything goes horribly wrong. Where do you go to complain, to win redress?

Don't bother. That, in a phrase, is the conclusion we should draw from yesterday's report from the Law Society about its Solicitors Complaints Bureau. The survey's figures are shocking. More than two-thirds of those who appeal to the bureau are dissatisfied with the result. Only one in five believes the SCB is impartial in its handling of the complaints. And tales abound of clients who waited months for a response to their complaints only to find their case referred back to the original solicitors with no further action taken.

More than half of those who complained believed the SCB was heavily biased in favour of the solicitor. Hardly surprising when the SCB is staffed by solicitors, funded by solicitors and responsible to the Law Society - in effect the trade union for solicitors.

This is a damning indictment not only of the SCB but of the profession. All professions are based on the claim that the training and expertise of their members means they can be trusted, whether that is with your accounts, your health or your legal affairs. An independent complaints procedure is particularly important for a profession because the client or patient is in a vulnerable position. Without expert knowledge of the legal intricacies of conveyancing, for example, it is hard for the average house buyer to know whether the local solicitor has advised them well or not. And as purveyors of essential legal services, solicitors are a monopolistic profession. That means regulation to protect the consumer is vital.

That is not something the SCB is capable of delivering. It argues that most complaints should be dealt with directly by the solicitors involved. This is all very well, but as the survey of almost 800 complainants shows, solicitors firms are even more hopeless at responding to complaints than the SCB. Hardly any of the complainants thought their solicitor had made a proper effort to investigate their original complaint.

Two reforms are vital. The first is the introduction of a genuinely independent body to adjudicate over complaints. The two functions of the Law Society - regulating the profession and representing its members - should be separated. This has already happened for doctors. The British Medical Association stands up for doctors, while the General Medical Council considers questions of malpractice. Regulating the profession in the interests of the consumer should be done by a genuinely independent organisation.

Second, any regulatory body needs teeth in the form of stronger sanctions against solicitors who do their jobs badly. Fines, reimbursements to clients, or simply publishing complaints could all have an effect.

These proposals should be part of the Law Society's plans for reform due to be published in the spring. They will be vital if the profession is to restore its credibility with its customers.