Ombudsman dresses down LAB

DEFECTIVE communication, mishandled correspondence and a complacent attitude to complaints are all highlighted in an ombudsman's report on the Legal Aid Board.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman William Reid has given the LAB a severe telling-off in his annual report.

Last year 53 complaints about the LAB were referred to him by MPs, just one less than for the Home Office and five more than for the Department of Transport.

“I was disappointed to find, as I have done so often in cases that I have investigated in the past, the recurring themes of defective communication and mishandling of correspondence,” Reid said.

In two cases on the mishandling of legal aid applications the ombudsman discovered ineffective communication between the LAB and the Benefits Agency with both bodies committing a “catalogue of careless errors which caused confusion and delay”.

A solicitors' firm complaining of problems over the payment of their costs also fell victim to the board.

“I found the LAB had been dismissive and complacent towards the solicitors' initial complaints, and that only after six months and at least eight letters did the LAB give the matter proper attention.”

The LAB vigorously denies accusations of complacency about complaints. A spokeswoman says it has improved its complaints system and introduced new computers to address some of the problems highlighted by the ombudsman.

The ombudsman did find some cause for optimism and welcomed a thorough overhaul of the telephone answering system and a commitment to increase the use of IT.

He praised the board for acting valiantly to cope with a compulsive letter writer who repeatedly changed his solicitors and often wrote two or more letters on the same day.

The ombudsman also reported on four occasions when he upheld complaints against the Lord Chancellor's Department.

Two were at the same county court. One case involved the loss of a file, while the second case involved delays in the payment to a complainant of u8,000 which had been paid into court.

In a third case the ombudsman complains of “repeated inefficiency” over the handling of a summons.