Handling complaints is largely a matter of common sense but a systematic approach will help minimise the risk, says Michelle Garlick
All firms, large and small and however well-run, will face complaints at some stage. The definition of a ‘complaint’ is wide. It is, according to the Law Society’s September 2011 practice note, “any expression of dissatisfaction made to a practice in relation to … legal services, client care or complaints management… where a response or other resolution is explicitly or implicitly expected”.
The aim should be to resolve a complaint in-house quickly and fairly and with the minimum of fall-out; the alternative is the client going to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) or - if it amounts to an allegation of negligence – suing. There are good reasons to avoid both, including bad publicity, the drain on productive time, and of course money – exposure to damages and costs if sued, and even if a complaint does not amount to negligence LeO can award up to £30,000
The SRA Code of Conduct 2011 sets out mandatory outcomes to be achieved, and indicative behaviours likely to achieve them (outcomes O(1.9) to O(1.11) and indicative behaviours IB(1.22)(a) to (f)).
So what can you do to comply with the Code and stand the best chance of resolving a complaint fairly and swiftly? The following are likely to help:
A clear written complaints policy, readily available to clients;
Appoint a senior individual to handle, or at least oversee and co-ordinate, complaints.
When a complaint is received, take proper details: what exactly is the client unhappy about, what would they like to see done about it, and when by?
Acknowledge the complaint promptly (within three days). If you need more information or cannot tell what remedy is sought, ask. Provide details of who will deal with the complaint, and what will happen next. Set a fair and realistic deadline – usually 21 days.
If you use external advisors, notify them immediately – there may be an opportunity to resolve matters that will be lost by delay. If the complaint amounts to a claim or circumstance, notify your PI insurers.
Investigate thoroughly, and when drafting your response:
be clear and avoid jargon; remain objective and do not be confrontational;
clearly state your understanding of the complaint, your investigations and findings and what remedy you propose (if you are not offering any remedy, explain why);
explain any changes made to avoid a repeat of the issue;
tell the client that if they do not accept your conclusion, they can go to LeO,
and have six months to do so (if you fail to mention the deadline, it will not normally begin to run).
Take whatever action you have promised, and tell the client when you have done so.Keep a record.
The proper handling of complaints is largely a matter of common sense and reasonableness, but it must be done properly to avoid damaging repercussions. Consult the Code and the Guidance, investigate properly and communicate clearly, and you are likely to avoid the worst pitfalls.
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