In the Media

LeO unveils complaints publication policy

PUBLISHED March 30, 2012

Monday 02 April 2012 by John Hyde

The Legal Ombudsman is to publish the total number of complaints processed against law firms - but not the details of what they have done wrong.

The consumer watchdog starts collating complaints from today, ready to publish them for the first time in July.

They will be published alphabetically in a table summarising the numbers, outcomes and areas of law involved. The tables are also likely to include some context - for example, giving an idea of the size of each firm or their caseload.

But consumer groups will be disappointed that details of cases will largely remain anonymous, except in a handful of cases where the LeO board has decided there is a public interest in them being linked to the firm.

Elizabeth France, chair of the Office for Legal Complaints, told the Gazette her board had 'agonised' over how to publish the identities of firms that had been investigated - but she insisted this was not about 'naming and shaming'.

'This a gentle starting point. We can't see the justification of naming and shaming,' she said. 'This has to be reasonable and proportionate.' She said the linking of firms with particular cases also risked breaching the anonymity of the client - something expressly prohibited in the Legal Services Act that set up the service in the first place.

An ombudsman report in advance of publishing added: 'The objective is to share information and thereby improve standards, not to impose punitive measures on an individual or small group of firms.'

Nevertheless, there will still be disquiet from many in the legal profession about publishing the names of firms.

The Law Society has previously brought up the possible effects on professional indemnity insurance premiums and said there are difficult areas of law that will attract a disproportionate number of complaints.

Larger firms have also insisted that information is provided to give a sense of their size in relation to the number of complaints.

France said the tables would only include complaints in which the ombudsman has had to intervene, not every call the watchdog receives. In addition, it will be made clear when complaints have been unfounded, and where the ombudsman has not had to take any action.

She urged firms to regard the publishing of data as a chance to improve their own service to consumers and enhance the reputation of the profession as a whole. 'This is a chance for lawyers to say "we're open and honest" and if the complaint has been handled properly there will be no need for a remedy.

'We hope it will encourage people to take first-tier complaints seriously. If you run a good and efficient business you will get complaints and deal with them and not be afraid of them.'

The ombudsman has been operating for around 18 months and announced last November it would start to publish the names of lawyers and firms.

The move was backed by then-consumer minister Ed Davey, who said consumers should be 'armed with the best possible information before purchasing goods or services'.

There were 75,000 complaints in the first year of the service, of which 7,000 were investigated.