President of the court of last resort

Veronica Cowan tests Legal Services Ombudsman Ann Abraham's faith in the self-regulatory complaints system. Veronica Cowan is a freelance journalist.

For clients unhappy with the performance of their lawyer, Ann Abraham is the court of last resort. As legal Services ombudsman she sits somewhat uncomfortably between a profession frustrated by complaints, and clients and consumer groups wanting less self-regulation.

Abraham is the former chief executive of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, where she was responsible for developing and promoting policy. She has also served on the board of Centrepoint housing association and the Bar's pro bono unit advisory board.

Abraham has clearly brought considerable management skills to the Office of the Legal Services Ombudsman at a time when its productivity is increasing.

Last year saw a decrease in the number of complaints. Her office started the year with 885 cases awaiting investigation, received a further 980, and dealt with 1,519 cases in all.

The office oversees the handling of complaints against lawyers as well as investigating how the professional bodies have handled complaints. Abraham can recommend remedies such as improvements to complaints procedures and the payment of compensation.

However, she cannot investigate where there is advocates' immunity from suit. Her predecessor Michael Barnes, the Fabian Society, and consumer groups are among those who have criticised this restriction, but Abraham says “this is an issue that is more symbolic than substantive”.

Abraham has been told by both the Bar and Law Society – and is quite prepared to believe – that lawyers are much tougher on their members than lay people because of the potential damage that can be done to the reputation of the profession as a whole.

But her predecessor noted that, unlike the Bar's complaints system, the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) allows lay majority representation when adjudicating on complaints about poor service.

“If I could wave a magic wand in terms of changes in the Bar Council's complaints system, I don't think that would be among my key issues,” she says.

She prefers removing the restrictions on compensation awards made by the Bar Complaints Council (BCC).

Abraham thinks consumer satisfaction can be improved by avoiding delay, providing effective redress and achieving a greater degree of credibility in the eyes of complainants.

As to the Fabian Society's comment that self-regulation should end, Abraham says that if she thought it was wrong in principle, she would not have applied for the job.

In her annual report, however, which was issued earlier this month, she warns both the Law Society and the Bar Council that they must improve their complaints handling – and quickly.

She says she has established good communication channels with the professional bodies and has found that the problem is with the practitioners themselves, particularly smaller firms. Some firms have good in-house complaints procedures, as required by practice rule 15, but others embrace the rule on paper and not in practice, she says.

David McNeill, head of the Law Society's press office, says Abraham is regarded as a “fair but firm” ombudsman.

The Bar Council's head of legal services and professional standards, Mark Stobbs, says she is perceived as being slightly more on the side of the consumer than her predecessor, although she has recommended it reconsider decisions in only a minority of cases.

But Abraham says that although the Bar Council's complaint handling is criticised in less than 10 per cent of cases, her office has proportionately more complaints about it than the OSS – 35 per cent against 6 per cent. She adds that the OSS is “streets ahead” when it comes to customer care.

At the heart of the Bar's problem is its failure to move away from regulation and to centre on the complainant. She says the number of cases in which compensation has been awarded for shoddy work can be counted on one hand. If this is still happening by the time of the BCC's second report, the Bar will have to explain what was going on. It “needs to square the circle” as far as complainants are concerned, says Abraham.

Yet another way in which the OSS's complaints procedure outclasses the Bar's is in its willingness to embrace the concept of consumer satisfaction surveys, Abraham believes. She would like to see such surveys carried out as a matter of course.

Overall, says Abraham, complaints tend to be about the same things, which indicates that lawyers are not learning from their mistakes.

Abraham seems ready to question the actual – as opposed to the perceived – importance of some of the issues that concern consumers; as long as she remains willing to do the same with the professional bodies, she will achieve the right balance. She says her job is to inspire public confidence in the legal profession, and she is certainly a good communicator. Hopefully, her actions will prove as effective as her words.