Consumer Focus Scotland support publication of complaints against Scottish solicitors. OUTCOMES of complaints against Scottish solicitors should be published, says Glasgow based consumer protection body Consumer Focus Scotland in response to a new study being undertaken by the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) of law firms' complaints handling, reported by Diary of Injustice at the beginning of May, Consumers ‘locked out of debate’ as Scottish Legal Complaints Commission carries out yet more research on how solicitors handle complaints
The SLCC’s latest study which is seeking disclosure of information from individual law firms on how solicitors deal with complaints has drawn sharp criticism from the legal profession itself and provoked calls by lawyers lobby groups to boycott the survey after fears were raised that actual complaints data would end up being published by the media as a result of Freedom of Information requests to the SLCC.
Lawyer’s so-called ‘independent’ regulator said it would avoid Freedom of Information laws by stashing data out of reach of media. Proving the SLCC has little interest in public opinion or confidence in it’s alleged role as an ‘independent’ regulator of solicitors, the law complaints quango responded to lawyers concerns by saying they would dodge Freedom of Information legislation by refusing to look at the actual complaints data gathered up by research company TNS Research International TNS-BMRB who are under contract to carry out the survey. The FOI dodge was reported by Diary of Injustice earlier in the month, here : Law regulator SLCC responds to lawyers call to boycott complaints research : ‘We will AVOID Freedom of Information by stashing data with researchers'
Responding to questions over the SLCC’s latest complaints survey which effectively shuts out consumers, a spokesperson for Consumer Focus Scotland said : We are pleased that the SLCC is undertaking research to improve its knowledge of the ways in which firms of solicitors deal with complaints. Ideally, consumer complaints about legal services should be dealt with quickly and effectively at a local level, by the business or professional involved, so far as possible. Many complaints can be resolved by way of an apology or informal agreement at this stage, and only where local resolution fails, should the complaint then go to a higher complaints handling body.”
The spokesperson continued : “We know consumers find it important to see complaints data so wider consideration of how this might be best achieved for legal services in Scotland would be helpful. The SLCC currently produces some complaints data within their annual report. This includes information on the number of complaints it received, the areas of law to which these relate and the stage of the SLCC’s process at which these complaints were resolved.”
“In its ‘Complaints about solicitors’ research, the Scottish Consumer Council, one of our predecessor bodies recommended that performance targets for each stage of the complaints process be published. Case study examples are published routinely by ombudsmen in the public sector, and used to be published by the Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman in its annual report. In 2010, a survey of our consumer network of volunteers to inform the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman’s model complaints handling process found that the publication of the outcomes of complaints was a particularly important principle for these consumers”
Consumer Focus Scotland in their previous incarnation as the Scottish Consumer Council conducted several studies & investigations into the notorious difficulties encountered by members of the public who are forced by circumstances to file complaints about their solicitors to the self regulating Law Society of Scotland and ‘independent’ Scottish Legal Complaints Commission. In what is now well over two decades of surveys & investigations by consumer groups & bodies into the complaints processes of Scotland’s legal profession, very little has changed from the 1999 SCC report “Complaints About Solicitors”, with most clients encountering a significant anti-consumer prejudice when making complaints about their solicitors to the legal profession’s in-house closed shop regulators.
Scottish Consumer Council recommended independent regulation of legal profession in 1999. Writing in the Scotsman newspaper in September 1999, the Scottish Consumer Council’s Sarah O’Neill went some way to explaining the conclusions of the SCC’s “Complaints About Solicitors” report, going onto recommend the Scottish Parliament’s then Justice & Home Affairs Committee study the issue, saying : “The SCC report concluded that there must be an open debate about the merits of establishing an independent complaints-handling body. We therefore recommend that the Scottish Parliament should review the current procedure with a view to establishing an independent body to deal with complaints about solicitors in Scotland. We would encourage the Justice and Home Affairs Parliamentary Committee to find time to examine this issue and reach a balanced conclusion. The Scottish Executive has told us it has no plans at present to change the current system.”
Ms O’Neill went onto say : “We would not recommend a particular model for an independent complaints-handling body. The Scottish Parliament should carefully consider all possible options, having carried out a thorough review of the current system, before making any firm decisions. Whatever scheme is introduced, however, it is essential that it is seen to be transparent, fair and above all, independent.”
The Scottish Consumer Council’s 1999 report “Complaints About Solicitors” stated in its conclusion : “This report provides considerable evidence of consumer dissatisfaction with the way in which complaints against solicitors are presently handled in Scotland, both by solicitors and by the Law Society. We believe that there is an urgent need for both to adopt a more client-oriented approach to dealing with complaints. Solicitors must embrace the concept of client care, which would help to reduce complaints, while at the same time ensuring a better deal for clients. The Law Society’s procedure contains many major flaws, and we have suggested a number of ways in which these could be remedied. Were these changes to be carried out, this would go some way towards improving the lot of consumers who complain about solicitors.”
The SCC report continued : “However, such changes would not go far enough. It is essential that complaints are dealt with by a body which is seen to be independent and impartial. Those who complain must be able to feel that their complaint has been fairly dealt with. It is clear that the fundamental root of the problem from the consumer’s point of view is that the Law Society is seen as being on the side of the solicitor. The only effective solution to the problem is the establishment of an independent review body to deal with complaints against solicitors in Scotland”
An earlier research project commissioned by the SLCC in 2009 & carried out by the University of Manchester’s Law School in to the Law Society of Scotland's Master Insurance Policy revealed clients had committed suicide because of the way they had been treated over claims made against negligent or corrupt solicitors. Diary of Injustice reported on the Master Policy research revelations here : Suicides, illness, broken families and ruined clients reveal true cost of Law Society's Master Policy which 'allows solicitors to sleep at night'
However, the SLCC has steadfastly refused to monitor individual claims to the Master Policy in spite of being asked by members of the public to do so, and no detectable changes have been made to how the SLCC deals with complaints made against negligent solicitors.
The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission has not released any further statements on the progress of the survey or any response to criticisms it is avoiding Freedom of Information laws by refusing to look at complaints data gathered by it’s contract researchers.
Meanwhile in England & Wales, the Legal Ombudsman is pressing ahead with full identification of solicitors & law firms who fail their clients, reported by Diary of Injustice in April, here : Clients of Scots solicitors miss out on ‘right to know’ as UK Legal Ombudsman moves to name & shame ‘crooked lawyers’ in England & Wales
As of 1 April 2012 the Legal Ombudsman began collating names of lawyers and law firms subject to complaints resolved by an ombudsman's decision. Any data collected will be made publicly available by the Legal Ombudsman at the end of July 2012 and then subsequently every quarter.