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Public has 'right to know' about lawyers with poor service history

21 December 2010

Members of the public have a right to know about lawyers’ poor service history, the consumer panel has said in response to the legal ombudsman’s naming and shaming consultation.

“Publishing complaints data about law firms lets the Legal Ombudsman go beyond helping the individual who complained to enabling all consumers to choose legal services with their eyes open and giving a powerful incentive to all lawyers to maintain high standards,” said the panel’s chair Dianne Hayter.

“Future users have a right to know if lawyers have a history of things going wrong,” Hayter continued. “Making complaints data anonymous would put a brake on competition and unfairly protect the minority of poor lawyers who let consumers down.”

Responding to issues raised during the consultation, Hayter said it was important to avoid unintended consequences but that none of the objections put forward by the legal profession were convincing.

The panel’s response said transparency justified the publication of the names of lawyers and firms in all cases leading to a remedy.

Publishing complaints data would “fill the information deficit” and allow consumers to make informed choices about lawyers, the response said.

The response also states publication by LeO “would help to manage the data appropriately rather than leave it in the hands of unofficial websites”.

The panel acknowledged that “some lawyers were nervous” about a publication scheme but said the suppression of complaints information in the legal sector had led to sites such as filling the vacuum, which were more harmful to the profession than a well-managed release of complaints data.

The response also points out that the powers to name lawyers were given to LeO by the Legal Services Act and that this was not a case of granting the ombudsman new powers.

While not making any specific suggestions, the panel addressed a number of issues raised by lawyers in the course of the consultation.

One concern was that complaints in respect of isolated mistakes might end up being published, and therefore unfairly punish lawyers. This was unlikely, the panel suggested, as was the proposition that it would unfairly affect sole practitioners and BME lawyers, which was not supported by any evidence.

It also dismissed concerns that publication of complaints data might create perverse incentives, with firms challenging more decisions or settling baseless complaints for fear of reputational damage. Because lawyers would only be named in cases leading to a remedy, there would be no damage to a firm’s reputation if it decided to fight its case and the Legal Ombudsman found that no remedy was required.

For similar reasons, the panel said, there should be little to fear from serial or vexatious complainants because of the barriers a complainant would need to pass before LeO would consider a complaint at all.

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Risk & Compliance Legal Aid