Legal eagles
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Solicitors in the spotlight
New charter should reduce legal complaints, writes Neasa MacErlean
Neasa MacErlean
Sunday March 16, 2003

Observer

The Law Society, the solicitors' body, will tomorrow unveil new measures to improve client service and reduce the number of complaints against lawyers. A charter for clients and a series of 11 free guides for homebuyers, landlords, separating couples and other users of legal services are being launched to give consumers a clearer idea of their rights and to remind solicitors of their duties.

In a separate move, the Law Society is recruiting a team of 50 inspectors who will this summer start visiting firms which are the subject of repeated complaints. Eventually, the inspectors will be checking up on all law firms - but the initial aim is to monitor closely the processes of the worst offenders and to help them improve.

The Law Society - both the regulator and trade union for solicitors in England and Wales - accepts that consumers have been frequently given a substandard service. 'Many solicitors are failing to give their clients a professional service,' it said in a statement to The Observer. In 2002, the Office of Supervision of Solicitors - the body that handles problems which firms do not settle themselves - received 14,880 complaints from the public.

The new 'Client's Charter' does not create more obligations on solicitors - but it does spell out 13 of the main duties solicitors are obliged to fulfil. For example, a solicitor is bound by the Law Society to 'give you a clear bill which shows the work done and the amount charged... tell you about any developments and update you on progress as work proceeds... respond to your letters and phone calls [and] keep you informed of costs throughout so that you can work out if a particular course of action is worth following financially'. Other rules concentrate on different aspects of the client-solicitor relationship, including the need for the solicitor to find out precisely what the client wants done.

The guides cover a range of commonly used service areas - telling you what to expect from a solicitor, what steps the solicitor will take to carry out your instructions and other useful bits of information. The titles include 'Buying a home', 'Getting a divorce', 'Making a will', 'Renting your property', 'Matters for the elderly', 'Personal injury claims', 'Problems at work' and 'Setting up in business'. The guides and charter have been sent to all solicitors and to citizens' advice bureaux, which will give them out.

'Getting a divorce', for example, tells you that your solicitor will need to know why you are looking for a divorce and that you will need to produce several different pieces of information - including a schedule of your assets and basic details (such as date of birth) of yourself and any children.

It also explains terms such as decree nisi and divorce petitions. Janet Paraskeva, chief executive of the Law Society, believes that fewer complaints should arise when consumers can be clearer about exactly what they are buying. 'The client's charter will be significant because sometimes the public are frightened to ask a solicitor to explain things in simple language,' she says. 'People don't know what to expect and don't know how various legal processes work.'

Complaints about solicitors have shown no signs of abating - they increased by 30 per cent last year. About 80 solicitors are struck off each year, but consumers do not have the right to know how many complaints have been made about a particular firm - or indeed if any complaints have been made at all.

The structure of the disciplinary process aims to deal with solicitors as individuals rather than striking off firms or warning consumers of the poor records of some firms. Although the Law Society can intervene in the running of firms, the public are likely to be unaware of this fact unless a firm is closed down.

Paraskeva believes that the speed of change has caused some problems. 'Consumers have become much more educated and expect a faster, more rigorous service. We all expect more from the services delivered to us. But there are some solicitors who find this change quite difficult. Clients may well be quite ahead of them.'

The Law Society also believes that clients going through stressful situations - such as divorce or homebuying - may transfer some of their frustration and resentment to their solicitors.

Contacts

The Law Society (to order the guides and charter): 0870 606 6575

The Office for the Supervision of Solicitors: 0845 608 6565

The Legal Services Ombudsman: 0161 839 7262

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