In the spotlight –10 years since the Legal Services Act 2007.
It was 10 years ago this October that the Legal Services Act 2007 was passed into law and paved the way for the Legal Ombudsman to be created. We take a look back in the archives at how it came about and what this momentus Act has achieved for addressing consumer complaints.
It was on 30 October 2007 that the Legal Services Act was given Royal Assent before being officially implemented in March the following year, but the build up to that moment had been years in the making.
The story began four years prior to that when Sir David Clementi was appointed to carry out an independent review of the regulatory framework for legal services in England and Wales.
He was asked to look specifically at what would be best to promote competition, innovation and the public and consumer interest in an efficient, effective and independent legal sector.
Over a year later, Sir David published the Review of the Regulatory Framework for Legal Services in England and Wales. Among his recommendations was a call to set up The Office for Legal Complaints - a single independent body to handle consumer complaints in respect of all members of frontline bodies - which in turn created the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) to handle the day to day operation of the scheme.
Overall, the aim of the Act was to liberalise and regulate the market for legal services in England and Wales, to encourage more competition, and to provide a new route for consumer complaints.
It’s the complaints part that LeO is obviously most involved with, as an independent, fair and free service to investigate complaints about poor service from any regulated legal services provider (and later also claims management companies).
Penny Medlyn was one of the first LeO employees through the door in 2010, moving over from the Legal Complaints Service (LCS), a body that dealt solely with complaints about solicitors. She is now the Operations Manager for the claims management jurisdiction at LeO.
“When it opened, the Legal Ombudsman provided a consistent and combined arena for investigating legal complaints,” says Penny. “For the first time, people could complain about a barrister, notary, conveyancer or solicitor to the same place and all at once.”
Ahead of the Act, generally the only recourse consumers had was to go to a regulator to investigate their own members, something that had gained criticism as Penny explains, “people didn’t think it was an independent enough system as organisations were investigating their own”.
The Legal Ombudsman name spread among the public and in the last financial year alone, it investigated and resolved 6,573 legal complaints. Residential conveyancing, family, personal injury, wills and probate, and litigation are commonly the most complained about areas of law.
LeO further evolved over time and took on a new jurisdiction to handle more complaints in January 2015, this time about claims management companies (CMCs). Up to that point, no-one was handling CMC complaints as the CMC regulator investigated companies for conduct issues only, so there was no redress for poor service for consumers.
Use of this expanded service quickly gathered momentum with approximately 23,000 consumer contacts in the first year and around 32,000 in the second year, with 4,683 CMC complaints accepted for investigation over two years.
Along with investigating complaints, LeO has the added bite of being able to publish a Public Interest Case when it has serious concerns relating to a pattern of behaviour against the same service provider or a set of individual circumstances which indicate that it is in the public interest to do so. The ‘naming and shaming’ to put the public on alert is something that has only been done twice so far in the Legal Ombudsman’s seven year history.
The first of its kind was for Tariq Rehman, a barrister at Kings Court Chambers in Birmingham, after he had 25 ombudsman decisions against him within a two year period.
Total awards for those cases amounted to £8,087 with a similar theme to the complaints of delay, poor costs information, poor advice and poor complaint handling. A Bar Standards Board tribunal hearing later disbarred Mr Rehman in November 2016.
The second Public Interest Case focussed on claims management company JAS Financial Advisory Services Ltd in August 2016. Numerous complaints cited that the company was not progressing claims, failing to keep consumers updated on progress and often failed to reimburse upfront fees.
After trying to engage with JAS, the Legal Ombudsman exercised its power to publish details of the company’s trends as it was in the public interest to do so. It led to widespread media coverage of the notice including Chief Legal Ombudsman Kathryn Stone on BBC Wales. Following this, the company closed down.
The Legal Ombudsman played an important role in assisting over 500 JAS consumers, some of whom were able to get information and claim a refund under section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act 1974, others registered as creditors with the liquidator.
Penny says: “The importance of the Public Interest Case notices are that they allow the Legal Ombudsman to make consumers aware of a particular service provider when we have noticed a pattern of concerning behaviour.
“It’s a tool at our disposal to put consumers on their guard on what to expect or avoid. It prevents people from making the same mistakes that other clients have made.”
Along with protecting the public, LeO has also been instrumental in improving services provided by the legal and CMC industries in an effort to prevent complaints from happening in the first place.
It does this by feeding back to the profession, holding regular courses and events on complaint handling with the industry and working closely with regulators to present at conferences and send out updates to professionals.
So that’s the progress in the decade since the Act came into being but what of the next 10 years?
There’s more change ahead with CMC complaints set to be moved to the Financial Ombudsman Service, anticipated to be in early 2019.
Penny adds: “LeO has shown that it can take on other jurisdictions, like it did with CMCs, and added value to the sector for both consumers and the industry.
“LeO has shown itself to be an effective complaints handling service that cares about its customers and worthy of the ombudsman name.
“I think the future will see us engaging more with legal industries and getting even more involved with the profession and stakeholders by using latest digital technology to give feedback and training, whether it is through webinars, social media or other formats.
“These platforms will be at the heart of us raising more awareness with consumers, so they know we are the independent and fair body that is there to help them get recourse for poor service. That surely embodies exactly what Sir David Clementi and The Legal Services Act was all about.”