OSS admits to substandard service as complaints surge

THE 18-month-old Office for Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) which was supposed to restore confidence in the profession's ability to regulate itself is privately admitting to disgruntled complainants that it is providing a sub-standard service.

Despite confident proclamations from the Law Society that the OSS is getting to grips with complaints handling, The Lawyer has learned that it is being forced to send out letters to members of the public apologising for delays in the handling of their complaints.

OSS director Peter Ross told one person, who has been waiting to hear from the OSS for a year, that “many people contacting us have received a service which has met neither their expectations, nor our own.”

He added: “Even with 300 staff, our telephone and letter response times have fallen short of the standards we set ourselves.”

The OSS is putting the delay down to a steep in rise in complaints from last autumn when complaints surged from an average of 2,500 to 3,100 a month.

The OSS is being forced to call in extra staff in order to deal with the problem.

News of its difficulties will provide ammunition for its many critics, both from within the profession and from consumer groups and MPs who want to see the Law Society stripped of its self-regulatory powers.

Ross said he could not explain the “sharp rise” in complaints but hoped the “exponential growth levels off soon.”

Ross told The Lawyer the problems were being addressed. A new “streamline system” for complaints, which was introduced this January, meant new complaints would be dealt with according to a strict and tight timetable, he said.

Temporary staff are being drafted in after Easter to bolster the “backlog busting team” dealing with existing cases.

Last autumn's offensive had already reduced the number of cases over a year old to 15 per cent compared with 50 per cent in June, said Ross.

Two confidential surveys, one dealing with complainant satisfaction and the other solicitor satisfaction, completed last year but never made public, both slated the organisation.

The external consultants are understood to have concluded that the OSS had one of the worst levels of satisfaction that it had ever encountered.

Ross said that the survey was irrelevant to the OSS even though it had been carried out early last year. It had surveyed complainants who had been handled earlier by the predecessor regulator the Solicitors' Complaints Bureau.

But Martin Mears, former president of the Law Society and editor of the OSS client care guide, said the two organisations were essentially “the same leopard with the same spots”.

He repeated his call for an independent visitor to oversee the OSS.

The OSS has informed Legal Services Ombudsman, Ann Abraham, of its problems.