LAW SOCIETY DELAYS STILL A PROBLEM FOR THE CONSUMER

The Office of the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner published today its findings from an audit into the complaints handling service of the Law Society. The report highlights problems for consumers, which include poor service, delays and the inconsistent application of procedures.

Zahida Manzoor CBE, the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner, said:

"I have always been committed to securing improvements for the consumer (ha ha she's joking of course), and these findings highlight the considerable work ahead of me. It is unacceptable that of the sample audited there were found to be delays in seven out of ten cases. These are people who have turned to the Law Society because they already feel that their complaint has not been dealt with appropriately by their solicitor."

The audit found that consumers experienced an average delay of nearly six months, and the length of delay on some individual cases could be as long as twenty seven months. In particular, there was one case where four separate compensation payments were made by the Law Society for its own delays, amounting to eighteen months. Other problems included errors in the correct designation of cases and the effective assessment of cases at the outset.

Ms Manzoor said:

"I am concerned that these problems are similar to those I have previously identified as Legal Services Ombudsman, and demonstrate that the Law Society has not yet turned around its handling of complaints. I have been working with the Law Society in my capacity as Commissioner for just over a year now and had hoped that progress would be quicker.

"Despite positive statements from the Law Society about what it is doing, I still believe it could do more. In particular, there needs to be a much stronger consumer focus in its complaints handling activities, with more emphasis on improving service and less reliance on paying compensation when service falls below the set standards."

Last year, the Commissioner requested a Plan from the Law Society showing how it will improve its poor performance in complaints handling. The final version of the Plan, which covers the financial year 2005 - 2006, was received by the Commissioner in April 2005 and follows a significant period of discussion.

The Commissioner considers the Plan as adequate but she is disappointed that the Plan reflects only a small step forward in improving complaints handling, particularly when over a third of consumers continue to be dissatisfied with the level of service provided by the Law Society. However, for this year she has had to take into consideration the Law Society's current poor performance and what it can realistically achieve.

Ms Manzoor said:

"As Legal Services Complaints Commissioner it is my responsibility to set targets that deliver a level of service the consumer can reasonably expect. I also determine whether the Law Society's own Plan is adequate for securing improvements. It is then for the Law Society to implement those plans.

"At this stage, if the Law Society acts in accordance with its Plan, it would be a small step towards achieving effective and efficient complaints handling. The final destination could take longer than the three years I had anticipated to bring about real improvements for the consumer.

"I will be robustly monitoring the Law Society Plan and my office will undertake further audits, to enable me to act in the best interest of the consumer but also balance that with the capability of the Law Society to improve. I have always been a strong advocate for good customer service and in the Law Society's case I think the consumer has already waited long enough."

NOTES TO EDITORS:

1. Ms Manzoor was appointed Legal Services Complaints Commissioner (LSCC) in February 2004 in addition to her role as Legal Services Ombudsman (LSO). The LSCC only has powers in relation to the Law Society of England and Wales.

2. The roles of the LSO and the LSCC are distinct. The LSO examines the handling of individual complaints by the professional bodies on behalf of members of the public. The LSCC examines the Law Society's capability to handle complaints made about its members efficiently and effectively.

3. The LSCC has the power to require the Law Society to provide information on how it deals with complaints, to make recommendations about the complaints system, to set targets for complaints handling, and require the Law Society to submit a plan for improved complaints handling. In addition, the LSCC has the power to levy a penalty up to £1 million on the Law Society if it fails to deliver an adequate plan or fails in the delivery of that plan.

4. Since first setting her targets in September 2004, the Commissioner has reduced one of the four targets, the customer satisfaction target, from 72 per cent to 68 per cent. This is to take account of the poor performance base from which the Law Society is starting. The Commissioner has also reduced one part of the timeliness target, for those cases to be completed within three months, from 55 per cent to 53 per cent. This is to allow capacity for the Law Society to deal with the longer running cases.

7. In addition, the targets for both customer satisfaction and quality of decisions will include a tolerance band. The customer satisfaction target will include a tolerance band of between 65 per cent and 68 per cent, while the quality of decisions target will include a tolerance band of between 65 per cent to 70 per cent. The Law Society must aim to achieve the targets at the level set of 68 per cent and 70 per cent, but the tolerance bands are a performance range within which a penalty will not be imposed.

8. As part of her mandate to ensure that performance improvement is made in the handling of complaints, the Office of the LSCC can conduct independent audits of the Law Society. For the first audit, the Investigation Team's remit was to examine two specific areas. Firstly, establishing whether the Law Society is consistently applying the counting rules and secondly, establishing that the use of temporary closures is being appropriately and consistently applied. The Investigations Team audited a random sample of 114 cases out of the 3035 cases closed between July and August 2004. Of the cases sampled 8 out of 10 had problems for the consumer of which 7 out of 10 were delays. Copies of the full report can be accessed via the OLSCC website at www.olscc.gov.uk.

9. Ms Manzoor is available for comment. For enquiries please contact Cath Jones, tel: 020 7210 8695 on 16 and 17 May, and 0113 2615436 at all other times.

ENDS