Regulator may remove right to self-regulation

The New complaints systems being operated by the Law Society and the Bar Council must improve their service to the public or the profession will lose the right to regulate itself, Legal Services Ombudsman Michael Barnes has warned.

Barnes has welcomed the replacement of the Solicitors Complaints Bureau with the Office of the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) and a strengthened Bar Council Complaints system, but warned against complacency. “I think complaints handling by the professional bodies is now on trial,” he said at a press conference to launch his office's 1996 report.

Barnes said that while the OSS was proving more consumer-friendly than its predecessor, it must go further and try to look at cases from the client's point of view. While criticising barristers for being late to client conferences and for unnecessary over-booking, he also praised a strengthened Bar Council complaints system that will provide financial compensation to dissatisfied clients for the first time.

Under the system, barristers can be fined for providing an inadequate professional service.

Barnes urged the Bar Council not to be too lenient on barristers. “This is an opportunity to set high standards from the outset, it would be a disaster if the powers were hardly used at all.”

Appointed in 1990, Barnes' 1996 Annual Report is his last before he stands down. In it, he states there were 2,273 complaints made to him in 1996 – 11 per cent fewer than in 1995. While this represented only 10 per cent of complaints made to the OSS, the Bar Council and the Council for Licensed Conveyancers, Barnes believes many frustrated clients walked away from the problem instead of walking into his office.

Of the complaints received by Barnes, some 2,083 concerned solicitors, 187 barristers, while just three investigations were made into licensed conveyancers.

Barnes made 81 recommendations that a professional body should pay compensation between £100 and £400, and 113 recommendations that solicitors should pay compensation with 91 of those being for amounts less than £500.

Only six firms refused to comply with the ombudsman's offices' recommendations and subsequently had their names publicised in public notices and the report.

Both the OSS and the Bar Council welcomed Barnes' comments and report, but OSS director Peter Ross warned: “We need time. Success does not happen overnight.”