Bar move worries consumer groups

CONSUMER bodies have reacted with disappointment to an amendment to the Bar's proposed new complaints scheme.

They say it will rule out certain legitimate complaints over shoddy service.

The amendment, to be voted on in the Bar Council's open meeting on the proposals this week, was called for by the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) and is thought to be supported by the Family Law Bar Association.

It narrows the range of complaints eligible for compensation under the proposed new title of “inadequate professional services”.

The scheme proposes only complainants suffering financial loss, which they must also prove, will be eligible for compensation of up to £2,000.

This would rule out compensation for inconvenience or distress, factors already considered by the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau.

The CBA also envisages a criminal standard of proof for claimants.

Consumers Association senior lawyer Keith Richards said: “If that's the way they are going to go, [the scheme] will be a complete sham and not worth the paper it's written on.”

Richards said: “It's an appalling move. They are not providing a complaints system which will recognise the hassle people suffer if they get a bad service. And if someone suffers a financial loss, it will be better for them to go to the small claims court, where the limit has been raised to £3,000.”

The National Consumers Council was “surprised and concerned” by the amendment. Senior policy officer Marlene Winfield warned that a burden of proof on the claimant could create “a mini-trial” which would be against the “spirit” of compensation schemes.

Law Society adjudication and appeals committee chair Paul Pharaoh said “the likely effect [of the amendment] would be to exclude people who might otherwise have legitimate complaints”.

But he added that the Bar and society face similar tasks of balancing political pressures for improved complaints handling with the concerns of their respective members.

Bar Council chair Peter Goldsmith QC stressed the need to take the Bar's views into account when announcing the amendment last week. The Bar will review the scheme after 12 months to examine the effect of the amendment.