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SLCC annual report reveals 6% rise in complaints

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An improving picture in its complaints handling, despite a rise in complaints, is claimed by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission today, in its annual report and accounts for 2017-18.

The number of complaints saw a 6.3% increase, from 1,155 to 1,227, making a 22% rise over the past three years, but the SLCC concluded 18% more cases, leaving 849 in hand at the end of the year as compared with 807 at the start. Fewer complainst were ruled ineligible (down from 183 to 164), were withdrawn (down from 83 to 48) or discontinued (down from 45 to 37), but premature complaints rose from 256 to 274. Conduuct complaints were up from 138 to 213.

More complaints were resolved at eligibility (up from 123 to 195), by mediation (up from 27 to 52) or at investigation stage, either by conciliation or report (up from 63 to 120). Those withdrawn at investigation fell from 68 to 29, and the number that went to final determination went up from 95 to 136.

During the year the SLCC also published new guides drawing on learning from complaints, for consumers and their lawyers, and updated its case management software.

Chief executive Neil Stevenson commented: "While we know much of the focus at the moment is on the recent outcome of the Roberton Review of the Regulation of Legal Services, it’s important to reflect on the year we have had. We hope that the review will lead to real improvement in the system. However, we can’t stand still, and in the last year our focus has been on working within the system we have. We have put in place a further programme of internal process improvement work and worked with the Law Society of Scotland and others to explore small changes to the current legislation.

"As ever, it’s important to recognise that most solicitors do a good job. We know that the overall number of legal transactions and the number of lawyers are both rising. We also know the public are now more confident to raise issues when they do have concerns. Increasing complaints does mean more work for us, but we know this is a trend being seen in other sectors and professions."

Chair Jim Martin added: "At the SLCC we are working hard within the constraints put upon us by legislation to find speedier, efficient processes to reduce investigation times."

In his foreword to the report, Mr Stevenson voices concern at "a culture of firms failing to engage with complaints, with 42% of those lawyers we contact at investigation not responding to our initial communication". He continues: "This adds to costs and delays, reduces the chance of informal resolution, and raises concerns about the level of engagement with the current regulatory and complaints model."

There is "no obvious factor", he adds, behind the rise in complaints.

Mr Martin calls it "an unacceptable state of affairs" there is currently no provision for firms or organisations, as opposed to individual lawyers, to pay towards the legal sector’s complaints procedure, though legal services is "a multi-million pound industry". He also believes the SLCC should be able to communicate directly with those who fund it, and to check whether individuals fall within its jurisdiction, but the necessary information is held only by the legal professional bodies, which results in "slow and laborious manual checks against website lists".

He concludes: "This must be the year that serious reform starts."

The audited accounts show total expenditure of £3,166,342, against a budgeted £3,223,700, with income of £3,158,565, leaving a deficit of £7,777 which after a positive pension valuation adjust ment bdecomes a surplus of £36,223. This compares with a deficit of £193,747 for the previous year.

Responding to the report, Lorna Jack, chief executive of the Law Society of Scotland, said: "The SLCC is right to highlight the need to reform the many complex and bureaucratic processes which clog up the legal complaints system. All too often, clients and solicitors are left in limbo whilst complaints sit in a queue waiting to be allocated for investigation or to be dismissed. It is little wonder that almost all of the concerns raised with Esther Roberton during her recent review of regulation centred on the way legal complaints are handled.

"Many of these complaints processes can be changed by regulation and without the need for primary legislation. That is why we want to move ahead as quickly as possible, build a consensus for change and work with the SLCC and the Scottish Government to deliver real benefits for the public and the legal profession ahead of further change over the longer term."

Click here to access the report and accounts.

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