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Ombudsman sees signs for hope

15 August 05

This year's annual report of the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman recognises that the new complaints handling system is producing improvements

In her annual report to Scottish Ministers, published in July, the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman records that towards the end of the year (2004-05), she began to see the effects of the Society’s much improved complaints handling system.

“I have now had sufficient experience of those new arrangements to see how they are working, and the signs are good”, Mrs Linda Costelloe Baker states.

The report continues: “This has, however, been a tough year for the Society’s complaint handlers as the focus on reducing the time taken to investigate complaints has led to difficulties. The Client Relations Office has worked under significant, sustained, pressures and the problems that have happened are not for want of positive and constructive effort.” Suggesting that rushing of decisions is tending to lead to mistakes, she believes that the system is still bedding in and that she will not be able to assess it properly until her next report, “when I should be able to record solid improvements”.

The report records a 27% increase in complaints (to 505) about the way the Law Society of Scotland or Faculty of Advocates had handled a complaint about a legal practitioner, caused mostly by the rapid increase in complaints about handling complaints of endowment mis-selling. “As always, I am relaxed about any increase in complaints because I think that it is caused by more consumer confidence and a willingness to challenge the professions, rather than rising dissatisfaction or a worsening of the service provided by solicitors.” The Ombudsman also noted a doubling of complaints to the Faculty of Advocates, and considers that it needs to pay more attention to assessing letters of complaint.

The proportion of cases where the Ombudsman was fully satisfied with the Society’s investigation fell slightly, to 47%; however there was a 17% fall in cases where the Society refused to investigate. She also notes the pressures on reporters and client relations committees, and wonders if further change to the system may be necessary.

The Society’s President, Caroline Flanagan said that she is encouraged by the Ombudsman’s recognition of the Society’s improved system.

The President said that it was fitting that the Ombudsman recognised the Society’s work towards a better, more user-friendly process, a flexible and responsive approach, sharper focus and more active case management, and the open door atmosphere for clients with a complaint.

She also announced three significant changes over the next year:

  • a new case management system;
  • a new target of handling 75 per cent of complaints within six months to be introduced as soon as the new case management system is operational; and
  • the introduction of two more client relations committees to allow more time to consider individual complaints.

Caroline Flanagan said: “It is important to remember that, while there is an upward trend in complaints, this still represents only around 0.2 per cent of the total number of items carried out by Scottish solicitors every year.”

The President also cautioned that most of the work covered by the report is about complaints handled under the Society’s old system used until September 2003 and that the figures the Society had collated since then showed significant improvements in satisfaction ratings from the Ombudsman.