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Case study: pragmatic approach to complaints

20 June 05

Report of a lengthy, and unsuccessful, defence to a client complaint over a trivial sum


The Society wants solicitors to take a pragmatic approach to resolving simple service complaints where possible.

A firm of solicitors was approached by a client who wished to buy a new house. The client asked for specific details of the costs involved including the cost of obtaining a survey. The solicitors provided the information about fees and outlays to be incurred and confirmed that the cost of the survey would be £250 plus VAT.  

The transaction duly concluded and the client received an account from the solicitor. The cost of the survey on the account was £400 plus VAT.  

The client contacted the solicitors who, after some persuasion by the complainer, contacted the surveyors to discuss matters. As a result of that, a revised account for the survey was provided from the surveyors for £260 plus VAT. Despite the complainer’s continuing concern that the direct quotation had still been exceeded, the solicitors insisted on full payment of the sum claimed by the surveyors.

The complaint was investigated by the Society. At the end of the process, the Client Relations Committee considered that the complainer’s concerns were entirely justified. In addition to a small amount of compensation for distress and inconvenience, the sanction imposed was that the solicitors were asked to pay back to the client the sum of £10 plus VAT for the difference in the sum quoted and paid.

Lessons to be learned

If a client asks for an estimate of outlays (for example, a survey), the solicitor should check before confirming precisely what the outlay will be and not give any undertaking on another’s behalf.

If the outlay turns out to cost more than the original estimate, then the solicitor should raise the issue with the appropriate person, and if appropriate the client, before the client raises a complaint.

In choosing to defend this complaint the solicitor spent months of time which could have been used on fee-charging activities and no doubt lost a client. The cost to the profession of the Society handling the complaint would have equated to at least the cost of a practising certificate for the sake of £10 + VAT.

A pragmatic approach to complaints may not resolve the principles at stake but it can be the best thing for your business.

Mary McGowan, Client Relations Office (0131 476 8152)