The OSS:caught between a rock and a hard place

Even in a society obsessed with complaints and in a culture antagonistic towards solicitors the figures make stark reading.

In the 12 months from September 1996 to September 1997 there were 22,305 complaints to the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) against the 68,037 solicitors in England and Wales.

Last July the Law Society and OSS combined to launch a client care booklet for solicitors in an attempt to reduce the number of complaints.

But the inaugural OSS annual report shows a seven per cent rise in complaints against solicitors over the past 12 months.

All this is happening against a backdrop of politicians such as Labour MP Gerry Sutcliffe and consumer groups like the National Consumer Council itching to take the regulation of complaints out of the Law Society's hands.

In June 1996, the then Legal Services Ombudsman, Michael Barnes, published a damning report on the OSS's predecessor, the much-maligned Solicitors Complaints Bureau (SCB).

The report was, in effect, a post-mortem because the SCB was about to be replaced by the OSS.

But the implications for future self-regulation were made clear by Barnes.

“Although the ombudsman did not use the term 'last-chance saloon' many interpreted his comments as such,” conceded OSS director Peter Ross last week.

He said there was a need for “a change of attitude and a change of culture” to avoid the mistakes made by the SCB.

On an administrative level, that has meant attempting to shift a backlog of cases, introducing a more personalised service with less standardised letters, and encouraging staff to use the phone more often to try and help solve problems.

At a cultural level it has meant coming “off the fence” as Ross put it and more closely defining the OSS's role.

“I think it's fair to say that we are there as the client protection aspect provided by the Law Society,” he said. Ross added that his organisation's performance should be judged by the comments of others.

So far the Ombudsman, backed by the Government, says the OSS is on “trial”. But can the OSS deliver?

The problem which dogged the SCB and threatens to destabilise the OSS is that many solicitors feel betrayed by the fact that a regulator set up by their own profession is so client-friendly. This sentiment has been championed by former Law Society president Martin Mears.

The report's launch saw Ross and the Law Society's compliance and supervision committee chairman, Paul Pharaoh, flagellating themselves over the SCB's past errors and promising an improved service.

But minutes later, at his own press conference, Mears revealed what was left out of the glossy report – the body's own market research showing that more than 80 per cent of solicitors and clients surveyed were unhappy with how their complaints were handled.

Mears said the annual report was full of the same platitudes and promises that had been trotted out by the SCB.

Mears proposed an independent “visitor” to randomly view OSS files and review solicitors' complaints.

This is effectively a Legal Services Ombudsman for lawyers, despite Mears' protests that the public would also benefit.

Pharaoh was furious with Mears' criticisms, saying that the survey he quoted related to the SCB.

The row somewhat over-shadowed his announcement that from next year the OSS will launch a fast-track complaints service under which it will promise to deal with complaints of inadequate professional service and minor disciplinary complaints within 21 days.

The concept is a bonus for solicitors in that they will get a chance to deal with a complaint registered with the OSS with one written response – instead of exchanging several letters over what may be a very minor matter, a problem that has infuriated many firms.

If the OSS meets the deadlines while maintaining the quality of its decision making – and it is a big if – the initiative may well score a first in pleasing both clients and solicitors.

However, if it fails, it will leave the OSS even more exposed.

The future of the OSS is far from assured.