Firms to face new demands to raze 'wall of silence' on complaints

The oversight regulator wants bodies such as the Solicitors Regulation Authority to step in and compel law firms to improve their complaints handling – with enforcement measures taken if necessary.

The Legal Services Board said today there needs to be a ‘step-change improvement’ in first-tier complaint handling to ensure firms deal with them effectively, efficiently and fairly.

New requirements and guidance were published today amid concerns that legal services providers are not doing enough to stop complaints escalating.

The LSB pointed to research showing nearly half of complaint cases which came before the Legal Ombudsman had been handled inadequately by firms. Almost one-third of complaints to the service were made before the first-tier process was exhausted because of a lack of confidence in the process or fear that it is too complex.

‘Too many people experience challenges in having their complaints dealt with fairly and promptly,’ said Alan Kershaw, chair of the LSB. ‘Often this is because it is not clear how to complain or they feel they come up against a wall of silence. The process should be clear, easy and as stress-free as possible.’

The LSB today said it will require regulators to pursue the best possible complaints resolution system and a culture of continuous improvement and learning from complaints.

In practice, that is likely to mean that the SRA and other legal services regulators start to take more proactive steps in relation to firms who are not handling complaints well enough.

New guidance states that regulators should use eight weeks as a metric for considering how promptly a firm has been able to resolve a complaint.

Complaints procedures should be required to be prominent and accessible to all, setting out the steps that a firm is going to take when a complaint has been made about them. Clients must be informed of their right to make a first-tier complaint and then escalate this to the Legal Ombudsman after eight weeks.

Firm should provided complainants with regular updates and ensure communications are in ‘plain and appropriate’ language.

The LSB guidance states that regulators must mandate that the tone used by firms in correspondence with complainants should be ‘professional and empathetic, taking into account any sensitivities of a particular case or client’. An apology should be offered if appropriate.

Regulators should also start to identify themes in weaknesses in complaint handling, and identify firms with ‘disproportionately and consistently high’ numbers of complaints and unresolved matters being taken to the Legal Ombudsman.

The guidance goes on to say that a firm failing to comply with regulatory arrangements for complaints procedures may, at the regulator’s discretion, be subject to enforcement when it is ‘targeted, proportionate and in the public interest’.

The Gazette reported earlier this year that first-tier complaints being taken prematurely to the ombudsman was causing a rush on demand for the service. The Office for Legal Complaints (OLC) said that data for 2022/23 showed that providers’ first-tier complaints handling was not adequate in 45% of cases.


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