Solicitors from Hell .com

Taken from the 'Which?' Magazine

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02 - 08 - 2001 Complaints against solicitors underline the need for a shake-up

'Arrogant', 'incompetent', 'negligent' and 'unprofessional' were just some of the criticisms levelled gainst solicitors in Which?'s survey of complaints against them, published today (2 August 2001).

Last year there were a massive 16,085 complaints to the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS), the complaints handling body of the Law Society of England and Wales. That's almost one complaint for every five solicitors. Which? investigated this mountain of complaints by seeking the views of 343 people (1) who felt that they had received poor service from their solicitor.

However, a major finding of the Which? research showed that while many people were dissatisfied with their solicitor, only around a half actually made a complaint. Which? believes the scale of the problem could well be bigger than the OSS figures suggest. And the nature and extent of what people said had gone wrong makes depressing reading:

" Most seriously, almost 40 per cent felt they hadn't been treated with respect - many described their solicitor's attitude as arrogant, contemptuous, patronising or condescending "Three quarters reported excessive delays and half said they weren't kept informed about the progress of their case "Over half claimed their solicitor had made mistakes, which sometimes had serious consequences for the client "Almost a quarter said their lawyer had lost documents relating to their case.

In many cases solicitors seemed to be paying little regard to their own professional rules of conduct. The majority of the people that Which? heard from claimed that they were given neither an estimate of time or costs, nor were many told they would have to pay the other side's costs if they lost.

It's not surprising that some solicitors have little interest in, and show indifference and disregard for their clients. Only last year, a former Law Society President, Michael Mears, wrote: 'The OSS operates on the basis of the fiction that the vast majority of its customers are worthy citizens great numbers of [them], however, are typical Mr and Mrs Modern Brit, whingers and grievance mongers whose primary object in making a complaint is to avoid paying the bill.'

Of those who complained to their solicitor or solicitor's practice, seven per cent felt their complaint was resolved satisfactorily but 70 per cent didn't. In fact four out five people were very dissatisfied with the way their complaint was handled for the following reasons:

"A strong feeling that the solicitors 'closed ranks' "The person who dealt with complaints was sometimes the solicitor they were complaining about and some people felt this meant they weren't getting an impartial response "Complainants got no response at all or that the complaint was rebuffed
"It was the solicitor's word against theirs.

Others said they received threats - for example, that fees would be increased or the lawyer would stop representing them.

'The threat of a review of charges made me reluctant to go any further', said one. 'They tried to bully me with legal action for daring to complain', complained another. 'When I complained at first I was pushed aside and threatened with withdrawal of their services,' said a third.

Forty-three per cent of respondents decided not to complain. The main reason (almost half) was that there wasn't any point. Over a third thought that they would find it too stressful and upsetting and a quarter of those who didn't complain said this was because they didn't know how. A few were even nervous because they feared the solicitor could threaten to withdraw services or legal aid.

Last January the government warned that if the OSS failed to meet tough new targets it may remove solicitors' rights to self-regulation. It also called for improvements in client care to reduce the need for recourse to the OSS in the first place.

Ann Abraham, the Legal Services Ombudsman (LSO) for England and Wales, is responsible for investigating complaints against the OSS. Earlier this year she said that, despite some improvements 'the gap between the attitudes and behaviour of lawyers and the public's legitimate expectations of them is as wide as ever.'

The Law Society has recently taken steps to modernise itself. It has developed a strategy to tackle problems, which includes setting up a Practice Standards Unit whose main focus will be to ensure solicitors comply with the profession's client care rules. Failure to comply could lead to disciplinary action.

Which? welcomes these initiatives, but it is yet to be seen how effective they will be in practice. Which?'s own research shows that many solicitors are failing to comply with their existing practice rules. It will take a significant culture change for these solicitors to start putting their clients' needs first.

Helen Parker, Editor of Which?, said: "Taking legal action can be a distressing process because of the sorts of issues that are involved - for example, marriage breakdown, bereavement or injury. At the very least, it's reasonable to expect your solicitor to keep you well informed and to treat you in a courteous and professional manner. Unfortunately, it's clear that many are failing miserably to do this."

"Which? welcomes the Law Society's plans to tackle the problem of poor service from solicitors. But our research shows that it will take a significant culture change before some solicitors start to put their customers first."

[Ends]

Notes

1. Last January Which? placed advertisements in the national press asking people who felt they'd had shoddy service from a solicitor in the last three years to get in touch. Which? sent 700 questionnaires and received details of 348 cases from 343 people. Almost all the respondents live in England or Wales - ten were from Scotland and three from Northern Ireland. As a result our investigation focuses almost entirely on the situation in England and Wales.

Consumers' Association, 2 Marylebone Road, LONDON, NW1 4DF

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