Righting the wrongs

The Law Society’s record on complaints handling is woeful. Legal Services Complaints Commissioner Zahida Manzoor tells Joanne Harris why her own abolition is the way forward

“The Law Society itself is letting down the profession,” she says bluntly. “If it’s spending £38m on complaints handling, where’s the money going?”
Manzoor, Legal Services Ombudsman (LSO) since 2003 and Legal Services Complaints Commissioner (LSCC) since 2004, has just been reappointed to her dual role.

Her reappointment comes as the legal profession readies itself for radical change. Sir David Clementi’s review of the regulation of the legal profession has been followed by a Government white paper on the future of legal services. Soon there will be a new overarching regulator, the Legal Services Board, and a single complaints body, the Office for Legal Complaints (OLC). Manzoor’s current role will then become redundant.

As LSO, Manzoor investigates the way legal professional bodies have handled complaints if the original complainant is dissatisfied with it. As LSCC, she focuses specifically on the Law Society and attempts to improve the way it manages its much-maligned complaints system. The society has been regularly criticised for delays, prevarication and cost in its complaints handling system.

Part of the problem appears to be the society’s rather traditional take on Manzoor’s role. “The Law Society takes a very legalistic view of my powers,” explains Manzoor. “I’d like to get an organisation that’s much more outward-looking and focused than inward-looking.”

At first glance, the Law Society appears to be doing a better job than the Bar Council. In the last financial year, just 7.41 per cent of complaints made to the society were referred to Manzoor as LSO, compared with 38.2 per cent of complaints made to the Bar Council. However, Manzoor found only 62 per cent of the Law Society’s complaints handling satisfactory, compared with 78.7 per cent of the Bar Council’s.

“There are substantial delays in the way the Law Society handles its casework,” Manzoor explains. “The Bar Council is better at it. I think the Bar Council continually tries and reviews and improves on its processes; invariably I find that it does what it has said. There have been times when I’ve thought I don’t understand why the Law Society finds this terribly difficult.”

She tempers her criticism with some praise for the way the Law Society is trying to improve matters, while pointing out that her tenure has seen the first improvements for a long time.

“The relationship has been robust but fair with the Law Society,” she argues. “If there’s a failure I would have expected the Law Society to really try to put in greater investments than it has. There are weaknesses in the end-to-end processes.”

Manzoor hopes that the new OLC will help to better manage legal complaints in England and Wales, and she is remarkably sanguine about her role’s imminent abolition. In fact, she is thrilled at the proposals in the white paper, which she sees as the right way forward for the future of complaints handling.

“I haven’t gone for a self-serving solution at all,” she points out. “I took the very difficult decision to say, ‘Look, the arena of complaints handling that currently exists really must cease’. What I’m passionate about is getting the appropriate legal reform that does the job.”

Manzoor spent a lot of time talking to Clementi prior to the production of his report in December 2004, and she has since spent a lot of time talking to the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) about the white paper. She feels strongly that she has been listened to and her thoughts taken on board.

“I was very pleased that Clementi took up my recommendations,” she says. “And I’m delighted that the DCA has accepted those recommendations.”

For the time being, Manzoor’s two complementary roles will continue. She is supported by lawyers and consumers who help advise her. Just a few weeks ago, Manzoor set up a consumer board, featuring such luminaries as Which?‘s head of campaigns Louise Hanson and Professor Avrom Sher, director of the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. The board is designed to keep Manzoor updated with consumers’ interests when it comes to the Law Society’s complaints handling.

‘Consumer’ is often a word that is associated with the ordinary man on the street, but for Manzoor it refers to corporate clients of the large law firms as much as people buying houses.

“We’re a global market now and when we’re looking at reform we have to attract the best business from elsewhere,” she argues, saying that the way in which the professional bodies manage complaints is a key part of client service. Manzoor believes that if a regulator is failing its consumers, it is also failing practitioners.

Manzoor believes the OLC will help drive further improvements forward, but that it needs to be set up in the right way and the person in charge needs to have adequate powers to make change happen. She is confident that the changes will work and that they will provide the best service going forward.

“There’s no point in rebadging what currently exists,” she says. “Let’s really robustly look at where the issues are; let’s make it right for all concerned. Let’s have new offices that are given powers to do the job they’re appointed to do.” The next few months will reveal whether Manzoor’s wish list becomes a reality. •