Read the facts in the next few lines, think about them, then read them again. They go to the core of our values as a profession.
In the 16 months to the end of December 1998, the OSS received 41,380 complaints against solicitors, an average of 2,586 a month. This represents a 39 per cent monthly increase in the number of complaints since its previous annual report.
The OSS is being overwhelmed by the volume of complaints. It currently takes six months before a complaint is even allocated to a caseworker. In 1998, 9,000 complaints, many from 1997 and beyond, hadn't yet been allocated. The delay is likely to increase to 12 months by the end of 1999, unless there is a large (presently unbudgeted) increase in resources.
There are many issues on the legal agenda – especially the effect of legal aid franchising – that are likely to increase the backlog. When, eventually, a caseworker makes initial contact with the complainant, it "should be no more than five months" before the complaint is decided. Action on the decision may of course take a great deal longer.
It is true that the level of complaints about services of every kind is increasing and "only" 0.2 per cent of legal transactions prompt one. It is also the case that 20 per cent of solicitors' firms attract 80 per cent of the complaints. But the legal profession is not a suburban railway line or a charter holiday operator. The public, our clients and our reputation deserve better than this. It is not only a great concern that there is much and increasing dissatisfaction with the service we give, but it is also unacceptable that our regulatory framework for dealing with complaints efficiently is inadequate and in crisis, or close to it.
What is being done? Will it be enough? The OSS is, we are told, developing radical proposals for its future role in complaints handling. They will be published and debated by the Law Society's council later this year. Secondly, the Government will be seeking new reserve powers in the Access to Justice Bill now before Parliament to enable it to intervene in complaints handling. The Lord Chancellor is dismayed at the deterioration in the OSS's performance. He believes that our profession should be able to regulate itself, and hopes that the reserve powers will spur solicitors to put their own houses in order. But the prospects for self-regulation will not be improved by the inevitable strictures of the legal services ombudsman when she reports in June. Lord Irvine forecasts that the report will have "some very hard things to say which the profession will find very, very embarrassing".
The Law Society has an enormous amount on its plate. Its effectiveness and credibility continue to suffer assaults from every side. But there can be few areas where its reputation and leadership are put under greater and proper test than in the way it deals with complaints against members of our profession.