Howells case highlights public interest

The Solicitors Complaints Bureau has come in for fierce and sustained criticism in recent years over its perceived bias in favour of the legal profession. It has been castigated by the National Consumer Council and admonished by the Legal Services Ombudsman. The consumers of legal services, the clients, are far from convinced that they can gain satisfaction when their complaints are directed to an institution run by the Law Society. They feel a truly independent complaints handling body is necessary. But is this true? Can solicitors handle complaints against their profession in a fair and unbiased way?

The Mike Howells case has all too clearly illustrated the delicate balance between the interests of clients and the interests of solicitors. Howells went through the procedures and was "severely rebuked" and ordered to pay compensation. However, the case did not get as far as the disciplinary tribunal, despite the recommendation of the investigating solicitor. While there was doubtless good reason for this, a veil of secrecy falls over the SCB when it is questioned. Unlike Howells, who was open about the findings, the SCB was unwilling to provide details.

As to the criteria for deciding whether a case should be referred to the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, it transpires that there are none, though the SCB is currently in the process of drawing up such a document. This is very unsatisfactory.

An institution which masquerades as an independent complaints handling body should be only too happy to provide information to the public. As ever, justice must be seen to be done. The SCB has not measured up to this simple test. Its replacement, the Office for the Supervision of

Solicitors, has a steep task ahead if it is to turn this failure around. If it is not able to change the perception of bias towards solicitors, then we can only sit back and wait for outside regulation.