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Naming and shaming by LeO 'might encourage serial complainants'

6 December 2010

Publishing details of complaints handled by the Legal Ombudsman is attracting growing support, with 82 per cent of respondents to an instant poll carried out following an evidence session in the House of Lords voting in favour.

A further 78 per cent said the Legal Ombudsman should publish the name of the lawyer or firm “in some circumstances”.

There was greater division in relation to the type and extent of information that should be published. While transparency was generally regarded as a desirable objective, the majority remained to be convinced of the benefits of full disclosure.

Participants had concerns, in particular over the unintended consequences of publicising details of all complaints received, fearing it could encourage the emergence of “Mrs McGlumshee” – a term apparently coined during the passage of the legal services bill by the then justice minister Bridget Prentice and referring to the typical serial complainant.

The publication only of cases where LeO had come to “a formal decision requiring the lawyer to put things right for the consumer” received the greatest number of votes with 47 per cent.

The option to publish details of all the cases LeO investigated received 12 per cent of the votes, while six per cent voted for publication of cases where LeO made a formal decision regardless of the outcome.

The evidence session was hosted by Diane Hayter, head of the consumer panel, with chief ombudsman Adam Sampson, and brought together representatives from the legal professions, including ILEX and the Law Society, the insurance sector, the government, consumer organisations, and the press, including Solicitors Journal.

Sampson said his organisation had not at this stage formed a view on the issue and was still considering whether the naming of lawyers who had been the subject of complaints would truly help consumers make an educated decision when choosing a lawyer.

Only if there was evidence that naming helped in this way would LeO then consider how this could best be organised, he suggested.

Even assuming that openness was desirable, the principle raised a number of serious issues, he said. Would it encourage firms eager to avoid publicity to settle? Would this then encourage serial complainants to bring complaints? And how serious would the breach need to be to warrant naming?

Echoing the concerns of many practitioners, he asked: “Is it right to name a lawyer who has had 20 years of service without a complaint but is the object of a minor complaint?”

Russell Wallman, for the Law Society, argued that a professionally organised complaints record system was a better option than leaving it to unregulated comparison websites. In addition, he said, if it was possible to find out which clients had complained, lawyers might be reluctant to accept instructions from them which could possibly lead to difficulties in some individuals getting access to legal services.

Wallman also suggested that it could unfairly affect particular branches of the sector, such as mental health and social services law, which were more likely to generate complaints. For these reasons, his view overall was that not all complaints should be published and that instead a better option could be to publish adjudications only.

Mark McLaren, for consumer watchdog Which?, said organised transparency under the aegis of LeO would be preferable to market-driven alternatives such as the ‘Solicitors from Hell’ website.

One solicitor specialising in defending solicitors added there were real concerns about vexatious or repeat complainants – an issue reinforced in a subsequent session held in Bristol on 2 December.

LeO is organising a further two evidence-gathering sessions, to be followed by low-level consumer research in the new year with a view to understanding how consumers would be likely to use naming and shaming information. A full consultation has been scheduled to start in February.

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