Complaints against the legal profession appear to receive more of a hearing in England & Wales than in Scotland. THREE YEARS ON & after the better part of TEN MILLION POUNDS has been squandered on the notoriously anti-consumer Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC), at least two of those millions coming from taxpayers via the Scottish Government, it may be an uncomfortable fact for some to swallow that complaints against solicitors & law firms in England & Wales are receiving more of a hearing, along with the expectation of enforcement action on case decisions from the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) than is the case in Scotland.
The major influence of the Law Society of Scotland on the SLCC’s ‘will’ to genuinely investigate consumer grievances against their solicitors, and the Scottish legal establishment’s almost deadly desire to keep regulating its own is seen as the key element in this now growing disparity between how Scots users of legal services can expect their complaints to be dealt with the SLCC & Law Society of Scotland compared to consumers in England & Wales who now deal with the LeO.
Legal Ombudsman for England & Wales, a world away from its poor Scottish relative the SLCC. In what may well be a good indicator of the determination to press ahead with regulation reform of legal services in England & Wales, a first came last week for the Legal Ombudsman’s office which began work in 2010, where Adam Sampson, the Chief Legal Ombudsman for England & Wales announced the LeO had taken legal action against two law firms which had refused to comply with complaints decisions issued by the LeO.
The enforcement case was one of two brought for the first time by the Ombudsman under the Legal Services Act 2007. It was only after the action was launched that the firm paid out £2,650 compensation to a client, as the Ombudsman had ordered, plus interest.
The client had complained after the firm paid money to a third party without authorisation. A district judge sitting at Birmingham County Court on Monday 15 August ordered the firm to pay the Ombudsman’s costs of bringing the case of £1,215.
A second case at the same court was adjourned to allow a different firm to comply with an Ombudsman’s decision.In that case the firm had mismanaged work for a property owner and the Ombudsman had ordered them to pay their client £5,704 compensation.
When the firm failed to comply, the Ombudsman issued proceedings for the court’s permission to enforce the decision as if it were a court judgement.
The firm initially tried to argue that the decision was defective but, when the Ombudsman produced the relevant legal materials, at the eleventh hour agreed to settle the matter and pay the Ombudsman’s costs of £1,000. The hearing was adjourned for 28 days for this to be done.
Legal Ombudsman for England & Wales, Adam Sampson. Commenting on the decision to take legal action against the flaw firms who failed to comply with rulings by the LeO, Adam Sampson, the Chief Legal Ombudsman, said: “These are the first such enforcement proceedings we’ve brought under the Legal Services Act 2007. It’s regrettable that we had to take these steps, and that the firms didn’t act more promptly to bring matters to a close for the complainants.
Mr Sampson continued : “The cases are a reminder that Ombudsman decisions, once accepted by complainants, are binding. Lawyers need to remember that our decisions are enforceable through the courts and that failure to comply promptly can mean an unnecessary expense. Those who don’t comply are likely to have to pay costs ordered by the courts, and risk being referred by us on conduct grounds to their regulatory body.”
While it may be comforting to note the Legal Ombudsman for England & Wales after only one year in the job is pressing ahead with enforcing complaints decisions and online publication of a raft of information on complaints decisions & statistics which is of considerable value to consumers in England & Wales, it is now unavoidably noticeable that clients of Scottish solicitors have the short end of the stick in pursing complaints against their solicitors, or even access to the level of information now available in England & Wales which, if published in Scotland might lead to clients avoiding using the crop of “usual suspect” Scottish law firms who continuously abuse their clients.
As the record currently shows, the now three year old Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, having soaked up nearly ten million pounds from the legal profession & taxpayers, has so far admitted only one solitary complaint as being upheld by their ‘skilled investigations’ and in comparison to the LeO’s court action against law firms, forcing resolutions to client complaints, the situation in Scotland is exactly the reverse with the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission itself now a target of at least fifteen cases in the Court of Session brought by solicitors and the Law Society of Scotland against decisions by the SLCC either to refer cases to the Law Society for further investigation, or for its refusal to investigate third party complaints.
With regards to other key expectations of the SLCC, where the power to monitor the notoriously corrupt Master Policy & Guarantee Fund was given to the Scots law complaints quango via the legislation which created it, the Legal Profession & Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, no further advance on the controversial subject has been made by the SLCC who are now reluctant to publish their latest attempts at ‘research’ into financial damages claims against ‘crooked lawyers’, cases & claims which have been deliberately derailed by the Law Society of Scotland and its Master Policy insurers, Marsh UK and those who underwrite the Master Policy such as Royal Sun Alliance PLC & Aviva Insurance.
Let’s be clear, I am not saying the Legal Ombudsman for England & Wales is perfect. I am well aware there are a great many people who disagree with decisions the LeO has taken on complaints. However, the sea change in travelling over the border to see how complaints are dealt with and noting the attitudes of those dealing with complaints and the clients who make them, compared with what Scots legal services users can expect by way of an almost constant tone of disrespect from the SLCC, the differences are now clear to see.
It is now an unavoidable fact that Scots consumers are taking too great a risk in dealing with Scottish law firms who are poorly regulated by regulators who clearly have no time for, or in a growing number of cases even discriminate against consumers who are forced by circumstances to make complaints about their solicitors.