Ombudsman's workload on the increase

THE WATCHDOG for legal services is being bogged down by a shortage of staff and the rise of complaints at a rate of 30 per cent per year.

Those who complain to the Legal Services Ombudsman are being told they face a wait of six months for their problem to be investigated. Ombudsman Michael Barnes warns the depth of investigations could be affected if the workload continues to rise.

In his annual report, he says the number of complaints was up 30 per cent last year to 1,598 – and the trend is continuing in the first half of this year.

The workload has been harder to handle because the Lord Chancellor's Department has only recently agreed to fund an extra two investigators.

Barnes' report says: “A continual rise in caseload is likely to face us with the unpalatable choice of either curtailing the extent of the investigations which we carry out or accepting that 'through-put' times will continue to lengthen.”

His office produced 839 reports on investigations during last year and took action in 177 cases – 60 to force a lawyer to pay compensation, 49 to make the professional body pay, and 68 to make the body re-investigate the complaint.

Compensation ranged from £50 to £59,809. The report says 1,177 of the cases investigated concerned solicitors, 112 barristers and four licensed conveyancers.

Barnes also called for a “sea change” in attitudes to complaints about the profession. He said solicitors and barristers were unwilling to admit mistakes quickly enough.