Improve complaints system or lose self-regulation, threatens Abraham

THE LEGAL Services Ombudsman Ann Abraham has given the legal profession until the end of the year to get its complaints handling right.

Launching her 1997 annual report, Abraham warned the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) and the Bar Council's new complaints system still had a “long way to go” before they could satisfy her that self-regulation could survive into the next century.

In her report, she praised both the Law Society and the Bar Council for their efforts to improve complaints handling.

But Abraham delivered a warning to both that her patience was running out. She said the OSS was still too lenient towards solicitors and there were too many delays.

“By the end of 1998 it should be possible to see whether the OSS is fighting a winning or a losing battle,” she said.

And she delivered a similar warning to the Bar Council, which revamped its complaints handling system last year by appointing Michael Scott to the newly-created position of lay complaints commissioner with powers to order barristers to pay clients up to £2,000 compensation for inadequate professional services.

Noting that by the end of 1997 no barrister had been fined under the rules, Abraham said: “The Bar Council will have to demonstrate by the end of 1998 that it has introduced a new complaints procedure in practice as well as on paper.”

Mark Stobbs, secretary of professional standards and legal services at the Bar Council, said it had taken time for complaints to filter through the system and said at least three clients had now received awards. Several more pay-outs were on the horizon he added.

“We are confident the Legal Services Ombudsman will say something very different next year,” he said.

Paul Pharaoh, chair of the Law Society's compliance and supervision committee, said: “Too many complaints come to the OSS which should have been resolved by in-house compliance procedures.”

Last month, The Fabian Society demanded lawyers be stripped of their powers to regulate themselves.