Dual role of Legal Services Complaints Commissioner and Ombudsman could create conflict of interest

There are concerns that the dual role of Legal Services Complaints Commissioner and Ombudsman could create conflicts of interest and be susceptible to judicial review.

Earlier in the month the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Lord Falconer announced the formation of an independent Legal Services Complaints Commissioner and gave the powers to the present Ombudsman Zahida Manzoor.

“It is not hard to imagine a situation arising where an Ombudsman might need to criticise or second guess the Commissioner and their oversight of how complaints have been policed,” said Julian Aylmer, a partner at Reynolds Porter Chamberlain. The Ombudsman is concerned with individual complaints against lawyers while the Complaints Commissioner will scrutinise the Law Society’s process for handling those complaints.

“It could be argued that Lord Falconer’s decision is premature and not fully thought through,” Aylmer continued. He flagged up the ongoing Clementi Review on the regulation of the legal services market and the internal review into how the society handles complaints, being conducted by Sir Stephen Lander, the Law Society’s newly appointed Independent Commissioner.

Meanwhile, the Law Society last week called on the Government to reinforce the independence of the proposed watchdog, the Judicial Appointments Commission. The Bar Council recently warned against “political placemen” on the commission, as reported in last week’s LawZone newswire.

Janet Paraskeva, the Law Society’s chief executive, said: “There is a danger that the objects of the Government’s proposed reforms to establish a Judicial Appointments Commission could be undermined by failing to provide adequate resources to enable them to operate effectively.” Chancery Lane urged that all members of the commission should be appointed after open competition, with the interviewing panel chaired by the First Civil Service Commissioner Baroness Prashar, as opposed to someone from the Department for Constitutional Affairs.

The Government reckons it would cost around £3m a year to establish the commission. The Law Society believes this is unrealistically low and does not accurately reflect the cost of recruiting and employing staff as well as accommodating the new commission away from any government department.