Complaint feint

The Legal Services Complaints Commissioner is on a mission to get the Law Society’s complaints-handling in order and is now equipped with powers to impose a £1m fine. By Jon Robins

If the Law Society is supping at the last chance saloon over its continuing failure to sort out its act over complaints-handling – as its critics are wont to put it – then it will be the non-lawyer Zahida Manzoor who is calling last orders.

It was the Consumers’ Association that made the obvious, but significant, point that it was the profession’s failure to deal with the complaints fiasco that was “the greatest threat to self-regulation” in its response to Sir David Clementi’s review of regulation of the legal profession. Manzoor, as the Legal Services Ombudsman (LSO), is ultimately the arbiter of that.

This week Manzoor takes on a brand new role with the official launch of the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner (LSCC). As such, the non-lawyer has the power to fine the profession £1m if it fails to get its act together. So, to extend the metaphor, Manzoor could not only call time on Chancery Lane, but she could also be about to present it with one hell of a bar bill.

Manzoor was previously a member of the NHS policy board and chair of the Northern Yorkshire region, with a budget of £3.5bn. She is absolutely clear about what kind of Law Society she wants Clementi to deliver when he reports in December. The time is ripe for a split between its regulatory and trade union roles, she reckons. “I always use the analogy of the society being the England football manager and referee at the same time. Your side is playing in a crucial game against France and then something happens: do you throw up a red card or don’t you?” she says. “You can’t be both.” Manzoor makes her position crystal clear in her own response to the Clementi review. She would like to see independent regulation, plus an independent complaints-handling organisation standing “at the apex of a new regulatory regime”.

It was Lord Irvine who, five years ago, made the ‘last chance saloon’ quip that has dogged the profession. It was then that the then Lord Chancellor took reserve powers in the run-up to the Access to Justice Act 1999 to appoint a commissioner. For the last few years the Government has dangled the threat over lawyers in the hope that Chancery Lane might clean up its act – but apparently to no avail. Now the job has gone to Manzoor.

Since February this year she has been working behind the scenes setting up the LSCC office. In reality, the possible fine of £1m does not seem such a great threat to a profession as rich as the law, especially as ministers originally floated £5m. Manzoor quickly points out that it is not “a one-off fine”. She adds: “Not only that, but the Law Society will have to pay a substantial sum of money for my office.” The LSCC is funded by the profession and its costs are just over £1m for its first year.

This week the LSCC publishes the targets it expects the profession to hit over the next few years. “I’m expecting to see results pretty quickly,” Manzoor says. “But the Law Society feels that they can’t deliver the level of targets that I’d like to set them.” It does not sound like her new office and Chancery Lane are getting off to a flying start; Manzoor, although guarded about what she says, makes it clear that the lawyers could be more ambitious about what they can achieve over the next two years. Nor does it sound like she is going to be forced into dropping her expectations. “It’s not so much a disagreement,” she says, “because at the end of the day the decision is mine.” Her targets have not been decided upon “out of the blue”, she continues, but follow on from “a major piece of work” by management consultants to look at complaints-handling.

So what is the legal profession’s problem? Is it just complacent when it comes to complaints? “I wouldn’t like to say, but the Law Society’s track record hasn’t been good,” she answers. “You only have to read the last 12 years of reports to recognise that’s the case.” Indeed, Ann Abraham, the previous LSO, damned the society’s poor performance as “consistently shaky”.

Around 16,000 people complain to the Law Society every year about shoddy service. In mitigation, Janet Paraskeva, the society’s chief executive, points out that every year there are 15 million transactions conducted by solicitors, which averages out as one complaint against every solicitor every five years.

Despite depressing evidence, the profession has made a big effort to address the concerns. Two years ago the Law Society’s ruling body agreed to devote £21m to improve complaints-handling and the society has since set up a 50-strong practice standards unit to train firms to specifically deal with complaints. This year it is aiming to visit 1,300 firms. The society also overhauled its complaints system, scrapping the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors and introducing the Consumer Complaints Service.

“The reality is that there are a huge number of people that are dissatisfied with the kind of service that they receive,” Manzoor says. “Just think of the many thousands that don’t even bother to go through the internal process with the local solicitor.” As she points out, only a fraction of the complainants get through to her as LSO – between around 6 and 9 per cent, she reckons. Of the complaints that did make it that far last year, Manzoor was happy with only 53 per cent of them, which was well short of the 75 per cent target set by the Department for Constitutional Affairs (as well as being down from a 67 per cent satisfaction rating the previous year). “That means I’m finding against the society in almost every other case,” she says.

What do disgruntled clients say to Manzoor? “Often they say that the Law Society isn’t independent – it’s lawyers acting for lawyers, or it’s a trade union as well as a regulator,” she says. “The perception is not that of impartiality.” Issues that rather neatly dovetail with Clementi except, Manzoor says, that the progress she wants to oversee is separate from any structural changes recommended by Clementi. For a start, the kind of changes she would like to see to the Law Society would require primary legislation, and she is not waiting around for Parliament to find time for that.

“I’m advocating, as LSCC, that the Law Society over the next three years shows sustained improvement in the delivery of complaints-handling, and I shall be doing audits and reviews,” she says. “The Law Society shouldn’t see this as a threat; it’s a tremendous opportunity to – yet again – try to get its house in order.”