The Law Society’s handling of consumer complaints came under renewed fire last week as the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner published the findings of an audit report into the issue.

Commissioner Zahida Manzoor and her team carried out an audit of the Law Society’s complaints-handling in February this year. They examined a sample of 114 files, looking at the way each complaint had been handled.

The audit report shows a significant number of problems with the way the sample had been handled. There was evidence of “poor service, delay or inappropriate application of procedures” in 91 (80 per cent) of the cases. A delay in achieving a satisfactory outcome for the consumer was the most common problem. Theauditors found issues in three-quarters of the files they looked at. Delays ranged from one month to 27 months with an average delay of nearly six months.

Although the Law Society offers ex gratia payments in cases where there has been an unacceptable delay, the report says: “Consistency of payments was difficult to establish. For example, the same sum (£150) was offered for delays of two months, seven months and for 10 months. In another case a 4-month delay resulted in a payment of £250.”

In one case, which was delayed by a total of 18 months, the society gave four ex gratia payments ranging from £50 to £300 and totalling £850. In another, after lengthy delays the complainant accepted a £1,000 payout from the solicitor concerned, but wanted another £1,000 for the Law Society’s delays. The society offered just £100 in compensation.

The audit also found that 14 per cent of cases were assessed incorrectly when the complaint was brought to the Law Society. On one occasion the society discovered that one of the partners in the firm concerned was a member of the Law Society Council, but did not tell the consumer until the case was closed.

The report comes ahead of legislation that will create a single complaints body for the legal profession, following on from recommendations made by Sir David Clementi in his recent regulatory review.

  No of files audited No where issues found %
Delay by Law Society 114 84 74
Ex gratia payments 114 21 9
Designation 114 12 11
Temporary closures 50 3 6
Assessment of case at outset 114 16 14
Other 114 6 6
  Source: The Office of the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner