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Complaints handling reform needed ‘as a matter of urgency’

Lawyers must deal with complaints more effectively to regain trust of “scared” consumers

11 October 2012

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Regulators must act urgently to improve complaint procedures, a report commissioned by the Legal Ombudsman and Legal Services Consumer Panel has found.

Base on a sample of more than 1,000 consumers, the YouGov report found consumers reluctant to formally complain and lacked awareness of the complaints process.

“As a matter of urgency, regulators must take what consumers are telling them and use this to deliver a real step change in standards,” said Consumer Panel chair Elisabeth Davies (pictured).

Chief legal ombudsman Adam Sampson said the report offered “some positives” and “some clear examples of good complaint handling for instance”, but that it was “clear that many lawyers could do more to ensure complaints are taken seriously”.

He went on: “If something is wrong we want customers to feel as though they can raise an issue with a lawyer, which is why we’ve produced a guide for lawyers and a guide for consumers to aid the process.”

YouGov canvassed consumers whose complaint to the Legal Ombudsman was ‘premature’, that is, made before first complaining to their solicitor or before giving the solicitor eight weeks to respond.

The report further found that consumers felt intimidated and confused, with many thinking the complaints system was stacked against them.

Many consumers however were likely to recommend a lawyer based on a good complaint outcome, even where initial experience was negative.

In general, a positive outcome in the case itself also led to complaints being dropped, with many consumers citing the “emotional effort” of continuing with a complaint as too stressful and uncertain.

Davies said: “This hard-hitting report reveals why so many consumers don’t complain about poor service by a lawyer – people are confused about what to do, get completely thrown by legal jargon, believe they won’t get a fair hearing and fear that upsetting their lawyer could have repercussions for their case. Just as bad, a quarter of those who do complain rate their experience as one out of 10.”

The report also highlighted “perceived inaccessability” around the legal services market and the lack of confidence on the part of consumers that complaints would be considered objectively.

“Transparency and greater accessibility” were needed in order to restore consumer trust and understanding, the report said.

Among the obstacles identified in the report, were legal jargon and the use of defensive language, which were seen as barriers to the complaints procedure, with legal service providers appearing “confrontational and threatening”.

“Consumers are being asked to drive competition by voting with their feet when buying legal services, but they won’t do this unless they are confident that the complaints system will protect them if things go wrong,” Davies said.

She went on: “This report shows that there’s currently too much of a gap between what should be happening under existing regulation and the reality for consumers.”

The report also identified a lack of understanding about the role of the Legal Ombudsman. LeO was seen as the first port of call, an “honest broker”, with the ability to “do something” and bring resolution, when consumers should first direct their complaint to a senior complaint handling partner, or a complaints department.

To coincide with the publication of the report LeO has published a revised guide for lawyers to help them deal with complaints effectively, focusing on the need identify the severity of the complaint, increase customer knowledge of the procedure and the importance of providing a timely response and suitable remedy.

Consumers have also been provided with a guide on how to file a complaint by the Ombudsman.

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Risk & Compliance