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Client care goes live

1 September 03

The President’s answers to questions on the aims and operation of the new client relations system

by Joe Platt

What is the main improvement to the system?

Speed. The complaints process is designed to be much quicker whilst still thorough. That should benefit all concerned. The Society aims to complete 90% of investigations within nine months.

Why was it introduced?

The changes are part of the ongoing review of the complaints system. The Society has used the review of the Regulation of the Legal Profession as a catalyst for change. The changes brought about by taking the opportunities for change have already come to fruition in the form of the Council of the Law Society of Scotland Act 2003 and the 1st September is the next step forward.

What impact will it have on my practice – will it ease the amount of time solicitors have to spend dealing with a complaint?

The system is designed to ensure that solicitors who deal promptly with complaints and who have a system for complaints handling along the lines recommended by the Society will find it much easier and less time consuming than before.

What are the safeguards to ensure that the system is fair and unbiased?

The system is designed to ensure fairness and has a number of safeguards in place to achieve that objective. The case managers are employed by the Society to manage the complaints process in an impartial manner. Decisions are made by the client relations committees which all have equal numbers of solicitor and non-solicitor members. Every committee member is given training on the client relations process and their duties.

What will happen if a complainer doesn’t reply to the Society after making a complaint?

Once the client has agreed the issues to be investigated, the complaint proceeds whether the client responds or not. Reminders will not be sent to clients who do not respond. This follows the terms of the Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions)(Scotland) Act 1990: “the Society shall investigate any complaint from a person with an interest that a practitioner has provided an inadequate professional service and/or has been guilty of professional misconduct”.

What happens if a solicitor doesn’t reply to the notification of a complaint?

Solicitors have 21 days to respond to a Client Relations Office letter. No reminder will be sent to solicitors but the Society can insist on a response in terms of the Solicitors (Scotland) Act 1980. Failure to respond can lead to prosecution before the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal for professional misconduct.

What difference will increased conciliation make to resolving complaints more quickly?

A positive approach to complaints seeking solutions and the early resolution of client dissatisfaction is, without doubt, the most effective approach. If a complaint can be resolved by conciliation, then there is no need for a written investigation. Most solicitors who use conciliation regularly also report that they retain their clients.

Should firms encourage complaints if clients are dissatisfied with the service they have received?

Solicitors are increasingly aware that good client care is good for business. The Society encourages solicitors to talk through complaints with clients, conciliate any issues where possible and, failing that, direct the complainer to the Society’s Client Relations Office. Most complaints stem from client dissatisfaction with communications and systems, so client feedback in these areas is a valuable key to making improvements.

What is sifting and what does the sifting panel do?

When a complaint is received at the Society, it is assessed using the tests set out in the 1990 Act. The purpose of the sifting panel is to review the case managers’ decisions on rejection of complaints. This ensures consistent application of the tests and the identification of all matters that should or should not be considered as complaints.

What safeguards are there for committees deciding on complaints without the supervision of Council?

The Client Care Committee will now have the responsibility for monitoring decisions made by the Client Relations Committees to ensure that decisions are consistent and tests are applied evenly in the decision-making process.

What qualifications are required and what training is given to reporters?

Reporters can be solicitors or non-solicitors. Solicitor members must be qualified in Scots law. Adverts for reporters appear periodically in the Journal. Adverts are placed periodically in the national press for non-solicitor reporters. Solicitors and non-solicitors are given the same training when they become a reporter on the complaints process and non-solicitors are often given additional assistance if complex legal issues arise in any complaint on which they are reporting.

How much does this cost the profession?

The existing system costs £1.25 million to run per annum. This is very cost effective when compared with other jurisdictions. The annual report, published on the Society’s website (www.lawscot.org.uk) following the AGM each year, contains full details of the costs of running the Society’s regulatory functions as well as a breakdown of the number of complaints received and decided.

How can solicitors deal with persistent complainers?

Clients who have made a complaint before should be treated with the same respect as if they were complaining for the first time. Clients are entitled to a clear and concise response to their concerns. If a client is unwilling to accept the explanation given to him or her then the client should contact the Society with their concerns.

Does the new system address the recent concerns of the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman?

The improvements to the system take on board many of the suggestions and concerns raised by the Ombudsman, the Justice 1 Committee of the Scottish Parliament, the DTI, the OFT and the many other organisations with an interest in the regulation of solicitors in Scotland. The endorsement of the system by the Justice 1 Committee and the willingness of the Scottish Parliament to bring forward legislation to improve the system shows confidence in the Society’s regulatory systems as well as a willingness to assist in its improvement. Whilst the Ombudsman has criticised the system she has also given the Society and the system substantial praise for its achievements over the past few years.

The Society is committed to the constant review and improvement of the Client Relations system which Parliament, the public and the profession have entrusted to it.