News In Focus
SLCC reports 16% rise in complaints
Complaints against members of the legal profession in Scotland were up 16% in the year to 30 June 2012, according to the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission in its latest annual report, just published.
In her foreword to the report, SLCC chair Jane Irvine, whose term of office expires on 31 December, records a year of much change for the Commission, with the original board members being succeeded by a new board, and a change in chief executive, as Rosemary Agnew moved to become Scottish Information Commissioner and was succeeded by Matthew Vickers.
Of the 1,264 complaints received and 566 in hand at the start of the year, 486 were found to be ineligible for investigation, 128 were withdrawn or resolved before an eligibility decision was made, 144 conduct complaints were referred to the appropriate professional body, and 289 eligible complaints were dealt with and closed by the SLCC, leaving 783 still in hand at the end of the year. The most common reasons for ineligibility were "totally without merit" (200 cases), time bar (174) and prematurity (115).
Of those accepted for investigation, a lower proportion than in 2011 (23%, down from 29%) related to conduct as opposed to inadequate professional service.
Fifty six cases were resolved by mediation; a further 19 were resolved at investigation by conciliation, and 22 withdrawn by the complainer at investigation stage. Of the 46 complaints resolved at investigation by report, 26 were upheld wholly or in part, with an average compensation award of £601 and in 13 cases an abatement of fees (average £310).
Cases going all the way to a determination totalled 146, of which 44 were upheld in whole or in part and 92 not upheld. Compensation was awarded in 33 cases (average £1,122), and fees abated in 17 (average £227).
The report adds: "We have seen an increase in cases of non-compliance where practitioners fail to pay awards which have been made against them by the SLCC. We take a firm line on this and use sheriff’s officers and the small claims court processes to enforce the outstanding sums."
In his remarks Mr Vickers states that the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, which established the SLCC, "at times doesn’t help us to resolve complaints the way we think we should", as the eligibility steps are complex and can create false expectations that a complaint will be quickly upheld. "Since our investigations are thorough and independent," he adds, "they frequently take around a year to complete."
Ms Irvine also restates her firm view that legislative changes are required to allow the Commission to best serve its users, as the statutory procedures are "too convoluted and overly complex in areas".
As the Commission budgeted to use up some of its reserves, its net operating cost for the year jumped from £175,000 to £734,000, on income down from £2,232,000 to £1,909,000. Its balance of assets over liabilities fell from £1,816,000 to £1,033,000.
The report contains a number of case studies to show how disputes were resolved at different stages of the process, a feature approved of by the Law Society of Scotland in its initial reaction to the report. Chief executive Lorna Jack commented: “The new use of case studies in this year’s annual report is a great way of showing solicitors examples of good practice in complaint handling at an early stage, and further down the line."
She added that the Society would look at the report in detail "to see where we can assist the commission on working with the profession to improve complaints handling", and in seeking to reform the legislation.
The Society is also pleased that following a thorough audit of the Guarantee Fund as part of the Commission's oversight role, it recognised that claims on the fund were being handled properly and impartially by the Society.
Ms Jack added: “It is reassuring that the Commission is driving efficiencies as our members are tightening their belts during these straitened times."
Click here to view the report.