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Conveyancing and family dominate legal complaints

Failure to advise or follow instructions more important than cost

25 July 2011

Conveyancing and family work are competing to top the table of complaints investigated by the Legal Ombudsman (LeO).

According to its annual report, launched in the House of Commons last week, LeO investigated 3,768 complaints from the 38,155 enquiries it received from members of the public.

Residential conveyancing was responsible for 20.2 per cent of investigations opened in the first six months since LeO opened in October 2010, with family law accounting for almost as many – 19.2 per cent.

Wills and probate made up 13.3 per cent of complaints investigated, followed by litigation with 10.3, personal injury with 9.8 and employment with 6.9 per cent.

Criminal lawyers triggered 5.6 per cent of investigations and immigration lawyers 4.1 per cent.

Delay and excessive cost were not the leading issues complained about, though they did come third and fourth.

The most popular category of complaint was ‘failure to advise’, with failure to follow instructions a close second.

Adam Sampson, chief legal ombudsman, warned that the opening up of the market by the Legal Services Act was would pose a “real challenge” and the traditional distinction between what was regulated and what was unregulated was becoming “difficult to negotiate”.

Sampson went on: “Newer providers are, as one might expect, interested primarily in finding structures and business models that work in market terms rather than ones which easily fit the existing regulatory structures.

“While these developments may offer a wider range of legal products to customers, there is a danger of both consumer confusion and regulatory inefficiency.”

Sampson said new legal products “may or may not” provide good-quality services but “how confident can we be that consumer – or indeed we ourselves – know who would be the proper avenue for appropriate redress?”

He said “the overwhelming learning” from the first six months of LeO were that “the edges of the jurisdiction of the new scheme, boundaries laid down in the Legal Services Act itself and directly embodied in our scheme rules, are not yet clearly drawn”.

He said one of the clearest examples of consumers having difficulties understanding regulatory status was will writing.

“It’s a service often carried out by will-writing firms that aren’t regulated. Because of this customers are left with little means of redress when things go wrong.

“We’ve seen similar confusion about claims management companies, with lots of consumers believing they’re getting a legal service even though most of the work is carried out by a non-authorised person.”

Sampson added that some of the lack of clarity was temporary, the inevitable result of the introduction of a new piece of legislation and the absence of case law.

“As the scheme beds in, experience will begin to provide that clarity.”

At a meeting at the House of Commons last week to launch the annual report, Elizabeth France, chair of the Office for Legal Complaints, which runs LeO, added that the new complaints body should be cheaper and more effective than its predecessors.

She said she was confident that LeO would be cheaper, partly because of the bringing together of services in Birmingham. “Whether we’re going to be quicker, time will tell. We must be, we have to be, but we haven’t got the evidence for it yet.”

In a separate development, shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter suggested that LeO could take on the difficult task of regulating claims management companies from the Ministry of Justice.

He said the success of the launch of LeO meant that it would be able to support “additional responsibilities” in time.

“It may be more appropriate if this was regulated by independent ombudsman rather than a government department,” Slaughter said.

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Regulators Conveyancing