SCB defies complaints criticism

THE SOLICITORS Complaints Bureau (SCB) has hit back at stinging criticisms of its complaints system which it claims are based on inadequate and flawed research.

A National Consumer Council (NCC) report has called for a complete overhaul of the current complaints procedure which it has dubbed “a bureaucratic nightmare which can last for years”.

The damning document details SCB inefficiency and ineffectiveness based on the testimony of those who claim to have suffered at the hands of the system.

The NCC is calling for a new Legal Services Complaints Council, independent from the Law Society, which would combine the role of the SCB and the Legal Services Ombudsman.

But bureau director Veronica Lowe says the report, written by lawyer Ole Hansen, is flawed and its conclusions at odds with a recent SCB survey.

“The dissatisfied complainants quoted by the NCC are not a representative sample of those who have used the bureau's services and therefore its conclusions must be limited,” says Lowe.

She adds that a recent bureau survey revealed that people who complained found services friendly and informative.

The report, entitled 'The Solicitors Complaints Bureau: a consumer view', has also come under fire for overlooking the importance of lay members on the complaints board.

The NCC says the new body should have a majority of non-solicitors dealing with complaints.

But Chris Heaps, chair of the society's adjudication and appeals committee, says: “We are there already.” Sub-committees handling complaints about solicitors' work are dominated by a layman majority of two to one, he says.

He also points out that when committee decisions are challenged by judicial review, or other independent tests, they are “upheld almost every time”.

Peter Wylde, head of Irwin Mitchell's professional negligence unit, concedes that the SCB has been over-burdened and has had its problems.

“But one must be cautious in escalating that into a charge that the bureau is fundamentally flawed,” he says.

Wylde, whose department acts exclusively for plaintiffs in negligence cases involving solicitors, disagrees with the NCC's view that there is too much pressure to conciliate.

“Most complaints against solicitors relate to service issues and in such cases conciliation must be the best way forward.”

John Hayes, the society's secretary general, says fewer than 10 per cent of people who complain to the SCB refer the matter to the Legal Services Ombudsman. Many of those who do, remain dissatisfied.

But solicitor Arnold Rosen, who acts for lawyers facing disciplinary proceedings, says the NCC report is “yet another confirmation that the SCB present structure satisfies neither the profession nor the complaining public”.