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LeO's naming and shaming a 'witch hunt', Sutton says

Solicitors and firms in ombudsman decisions will be named next year

14 November 2011

Clive Sutton, honorary secretary of the Sole Practitioners Group, has condemned plans by the Legal Ombudsman to publish the names of lawyers on its website as a “witch hunt”.

LeO intends to publish the names of all lawyers and firms on its website where a complaint has resulted in a formal decision, whether or not a remedy was required, from July 2012. In a ‘handful’ of cases, where LeO believes there has been a ‘pattern of complaints’ or where the ‘public interest’ requires it, lawyers could be named immediately, from April next year.

Sutton said conduct matters were one thing, but complaints to LeO involved solicitors “not replying to letters, not doing things within a reasonable time”.

He said that where a complaint could easily be remedied by a solicitor, a client could reject it and use publication as a “really serious threat”.

“This is a weapon for disgruntled clients, and there are many of them, who have lost their cases, to take it out on their solicitor.

“It is too much of an intrusion on the reasonable privacy one would expect in one’s professional life.

“If it is a gross piece of misconduct which no one could condone and the solicitor has acted totally unreasonably, there should be publication but it should be a separate decision, part of a two-stage process.

“The balance has swung too far against solicitors. This could a disaster for a solicitor who relies on their reputation in the local community.”

A Law Society spokesman said the society did not believe that “publication of this data in the proposed format” would help consumers choose between firms.

“The lack of data about the size of firms or the number of transactions they undertake means that publication will penalise firms who do high volumes of work, even where they have had relatively few complaints.”

The decision to ‘name and shame’ was taken by the board of the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC), which supervises LeO, ending a three-year row between representative bodies and consumer groups, including the LSB’s consumer panel, which regard the move as essential.

Speaking to Solicitors Journal, Liz France, chair of the OLC, admitted that the impact of publishing names could be “serious, especially for sole practitioners and barristers, because they are individuals”.

She did not expect more than a “handful” of lawyers to be singled out for immediate naming and shaming, a decision which will be taken in every case by the board of the OLC.

“Looking back over the past year, we would have taken that decision in six cases,” France said. “They are the sort of people the profession would want to see named.”

The OLC was not under political pressure from the government to publish names, France said, though there was an “increasing demand” for transparency right across the different ombudsman services.

However, she said the decision to name lawyers and firms was not something that “we could leave in the air any longer”.

She said the board did not want publication to have a “chilling effect” on firms in sectors such as immigration and mental health, which generate a particularly high number of complaints.

As a result, she said the type of work carried out by firms would be clearly stated. She added that around a third of LeO’s annual caseload of 7,000 cases resulted in a formal decision.

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