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Phone a friend

18 May 09

The Society's Regulation Liaison Team has a support programme for all sections of the profession in adapting client care policies for the new complaints regime

by Craig Watson

Firms on the receiving end of complaints face being squeezed between a drop in income brought on by the economic downturn and the rising costs of a new complaints regime, according to the head of the Society’s Regulation Liaison Team.

Complaints dealt with through the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) carry case fees of between £500 and £2,000 even if settled, and potentially compensation of up to £20,000, explains Mary McGowan. So the time has never been better to review client care policies and standards of service.

“And we’ll be there to help solicitors in any way we can,” McGowan adds. “We are really keen to hear from anyone who wants to take advantage of our services, or even just use us as a sounding board. Our experience tells us that dealing with complaints is an unpleasant and sometimes isolating experience – it’s good to have someone at the end of a phone who will try to help.”

The benefits of picking up the phone and asking for advice are obvious. “Once a firm is in the SLCC process, even one complaint carries a high risk because of the work and costs involved, which is why it is much better to avoid complaints in the first place.

“We appreciate the impact the economic downturn is having on many solicitors, but this is the very time to review client care policies and service standards, which have to be of the highest standard if potentially costly complaints are to be avoided. Carrying out such a review will also ensure the firm is well placed when the upturn comes.”

Action plan

The Regulation Liaison Team has actively been seeking to support different sections of the profession, writing to all client relations partners as well as in-house lawyers and groups such as the Family Law Association. The team also plans to run a number of workshops and develop a designated section of the Society’s website.

Team head Mary McGowan comments: “We want to support those on the front line and so have visited many faculties and spoken to firms of all sizes. Our messages about recent changes have been well received and we have been very pleasantly surprised by the level of interest shown by firms in making sure they are conducting proper risk management and showing a willingness to evolve.

“We are now looking to expand the focus of our work and so will be contacting different groups to ask how we can meet their needs. While we can’t give advice on what to do with an individual complaint, we can offer guidance and information on processes and procedures. We are more than happy to help if any other groups or individuals want information or support.”

Although no final figures were officially published, the Society has been told that it received its highest ever satisfaction rating in the last six months of the operation of the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman. In figures, 83% of those complaints passed to the Ombudsman for review between April and September 2008 were handled satisfactorily or generally satisfactorily by the Society.

Top ratings

However, McGowan states that the Society is committed to further improvement. “Most of the cases seen by the Ombudsman involve difficult, challenging issues so the figure of 83% is incredibly high. It can be put down to the fact that everyone has worked very hard to deliver a top quality complaints handling service. Previously, the average satisfaction rating was 70%.

“It is sometimes overlooked that the Society is still handling a large number of complaints because the SLCC only investigates service complaints for business instructed after 1 October 2008. However, we are confident of achieving the same high standards when the SLCC is the body reviewing the Society’s handling of individual complaints. We will be re-examining our internal complaints handling procedures to ensure that they evolve satisfactorily.”

The Regulation Liaison Team will also continue to meet with the SLCC to discuss matters of mutual interest, such as individual cases as well as policies and procedures. For instance, they are currently looking at the way the Commission handles premature complaints, the process for judging whether complaints are frivolous, vexatious or without merit, and how the Commission intends to deal with third party service complaints.

Mary McGowan adds: “Overall, the transition to the new system of complaints has been very smooth and that’s largely due to dedication and goodwill on both sides. I have regular meetings with Rosemary Agnew, the SLCC’s head of investigations, which has proved to be a constructive way to ensure we all meet the interests of those we serve. If anyone has any concerns, they should get in touch – I’m happy to take up relevant issues on behalf of members.”

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