The aim of the below guide is to help you improve the overall service you provide to your customers. By sharing best practice with you, we hope you will be able to reduce the number of complaints that are escalated to the Legal Ombudsman and improve service standards across the profession. Below we outline our top tips for best practice complaint handling.

Key principles: Be transparent

Aside from it being a regulatory requirement, having an accessible complaints procedure in place can help to increase customer confidence in your service. It shows you are committed to providing a good level of service and will mean you are ready if/when a complaint is made.

Your complaints procedure should ensure your customer is aware of:

  • Their right to complain to you about your services and your charges;
  • How they can make their complaint and who it should be addressed to; and
  • What options they have if they remain unhappy after you have completed your review of the complaint, including details of the Legal Ombudsman and when they can make a complaint to us.

An effective complaints process should:

  • Have a named point of contact
    Having a point of contact for complaints will avoid complaints going unanswered due to lack of ownership. If you don’t have a dedicated point of contact, consider involving someone else early in the process. This will allow the complaint to be moderated and gives you the benefit of a more objective viewpoint. You should also make sure all staff know who a complaint should be forwarded to, if they are made aware of it in the first instance.
  • Use simple language that is easy to follow
    You want people to feel comfortable raising their complaints with you and complex or overly legalistic language can be a barrier. Remember, this is also an opportunity for you to learn from the complaints you receive so removing barriers is vital.
  • Be accessible
    Your complaints process should be accessible to all, including vulnerable customers and those with special needs or requirements. You should be contactable by email, phone and letter and have the process available on your website. If a customer makes you aware that they are having difficulties bringing their complaint to you, ask how you can assist them.
  • Be as straightforward as possible
    Don’t over complicate the process. Make sure it gives individuals an opportunity for review, but you don’t need too many hoops for them to jump through. Again, looking at an overly complicated complaints process can put people off raising their concerns. In turn, this means you miss the opportunity to learn and improve your service.
  • Be clear about what will happen at each stage and how long each stage should take
    Make sure a customer could identify where they are in the process and what should be happening next.
  • Fit within the eight-week timeframe - make sure the timeframes you set out mean you can complete the process within eight weeks of the date that the complaint was first raised. If you haven’t completed your process by eight weeks, you may miss the opportunity to do so. At this point the person complaining can bring the matter to the Legal Ombudsman and does not need to wait for your process to finish. Double check the timeframes you have set out in your procedures to make sure you have complied with this requirement.
  • Signpost
    Early on and at the end of your process – if you are unable to resolve the complaint, inform your customer that they can bring their complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.

Scheme rules - signposting

There is a requirement under section 112 of the Legal Services Act for all authorised persons to signpost customers to the Legal Ombudsman. Section 3.2 of our Scheme Rules sets out the Legal Services Board’s (LSB) requirements that you inform your customers how to complain at the time of engagement and in writing at the end of the complaints process.

We have seen many complaint procedures that have incorrect signposting information in them. You should double check your signposting information is right. If you fail to correctly signpost, then we can use our discretion to accept complaints, which may have otherwise fallen out of our time-limits.
The below signposting guidance has everything you need to correctly signpost.

Useful Information

Legal Services Act - section 112 - statutory requirements for complaint handling
Scheme rules - (section 3.2) the framework for how we resolve complaints
Signposting guidance - signposting requirements

Key principles: Mind your language

Avoid jargon and emotive or provocative language

The type of language and tone used in the complaints process can affect customer decisions. Use of jargon and legalistic language can also be a barrier to resolving issues.

It is best practice to use clear, comprehensible language and a neutral tone. Clarity in any communication is vital to a considered and effective complaints procedure.

Complex and legalistic terminology may be second nature to you; however, it is best avoided when writing responses to complaints. In addition to this, it is important to give careful thought to the tone used in your complaint responses. For example, it is unlikely that the tone used here will help resolve the issues

I reject all complaints contained in your letter (dated) and deny any breach of duties…You have the right to make a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman, but you must do so within 6 months. I will not respond to any further communication on this matter.

Whilst there may not be anything factually wrong here, its dismissive and defensive tone is unlikely to help resolve the issues at first tier.

Instead, consider re-phrasing:

 I have now concluded my review of your file and as set out within this letter; I have not upheld the complaints that you have raised. I appreciate you may be disappointed with this outcome and I therefore confirm that you do have a right to bring your complaint to the Legal Ombudsman…

Useful Information

The language of complaints research - this research considers the impact of language

Complaints process: Listen

Identifying a complaint

It is unlikely that you will ever be able to avoid complaints entirely. So, it’s important to be able to recognise when a complaint is being made and to deal with it appropriately.

Our Scheme Rules define a complaint as an ‘expression of dissatisfaction’. We will always encourage people who contact us before making their complaint, to put it in writing; however, this isn’t a requirement and we will investigate complaints where the complaint has been made in person or over the phone. 

Sometimes customers will simply be raising queries about their case, however, sometimes these queries become concerns and the customer may be expressing their dissatisfaction about the service they are receiving. It is important that you can identify when these queries have become concerns that need to be addressed more formally.

A customer may also feel intimidated or concerned that making a complaint may affect their ongoing case. Or they may have special needs or requirements, which need accommodating in order to make your complaints process fair and accessible. It is important that you are able to identify when this is happening and to act on it appropriately.

If in doubt about whether a complaint is being raised – ask! Speak to the customer, acknowledge their concerns and ask them if they would like them to be addressed under your complaint’s procedure.


Think:

  • If a customer called your offices today, would the person who answered know how to respond if the customer wanted to complain?
  • Do all staff, at all levels, know how to respond to a customer’s concerns about the service they are receiving?

Understand the reason for the complaint 

A key part of your process needs to be really understanding the complaint that is being made. This will help to approach the complaint in the best way possible to reach a resolution. If you don’t get to the heart of the complaint being raised, you won’t be able to fully resolve it.

It may also be helpful to think about any underlying reasons for the complaint. Perhaps a customer is anxious about the progress of their case, hasn’t fully understood the legal process or is working to a limited budget.

Some customers may also be dealing with very stressful events in their life and may need more support than others. Take these things into account as the complaint progresses.

We sometimes receive complaint letters which are very long and detailed and it can be difficult to identify the key issues being raised. If you receive a complaint like this, it can be useful to phone the customer and talk it through, identify with them what the real issues are and what is important to them. Once you have a good understanding of the main issues, you can start to address them.

Case Study
Case Study
listen to the complaint
Vulnerable Customers
Mrs C was going through a difficult divorce and when she complained to the firm she told them she was feeling overwhelmed and was struggling to focus on all the lengthy letters she was receiving about the divorce and couldn't take the information in.

Despite this, the firm's response to the complaint was really long and set out a lengthy chronology of everything that had happened. Mrs C came to the Legal Ombudsman as she was unhappy with their response and when we spoke to the firm they agreed they were happy to speak to Mrs C to explain a couple of key issues.

When they did this, the complaint was resolved without any significant involvement from the Legal Ombudsman. The firm had followed their standard process in dealing with the case despite Mrs C having told them how hard she was finding things. If the firm had taken a different approach and just spoken to her, it could have been resolved without our involvement.
Case Study
Case Study
listen to the complaint
Understanding the complaint
Miss D was unhappy with the service she had received while purchasing her first property. She wrote to the firm with a lengthy complaint that included complaints about the service they had provided, accusations against the seller and also complaints about the estate agent.

In order to better understand her complaint, the firm decided it would be best to speak to Miss D. They arranged a call and talked through the detail of her complaint. The firm explained that they would only be able to address the issues about their service, but also signposted Miss D to the complaint process for the Estate Agent. In making this call, the firm were able to clarify the issues at the heart of Miss D's dissatisfaction and they followed up with a letter setting out the complaints in three bullet points. Miss D confirmed these were the issues she wanted the firm to deal with and at this point, the firm undertook their first tier complaint investigation. They only did so, once they were sure they understood the complaint fully.
Complaints process: Inform

Acknowledge the complaint within two working days of receipt

Good communication is going to be vital to ensuring that you handle the complaint in an appropriate way. Good practice requires a timely acknowledgement of a complaint. The experience of customers in other sectors shows that a response within two working days increases their confidence in a complaint handling process.

Provide a map of options to resolve the issue/s

It is important to be flexible and tailor your approach to your customer, provide options and consider what approach would best suit the situation. If the issue relates to greater clarity over costs, you might simply need to provide the customer with a more detailed breakdown of their bill. In this way, the complaint could be dealt with quickly and informally.

On the other hand, if the complaint is about whether you have followed their instructions regarding the work it may require a more formal route in which both parties provide written evidence to support their argument.

You may have a procedure in place but if circumstances mean it would be better to deviate from this and try something new, suggest that to the customer and see how they feel about it. It is about recognising that one size won’t always fit all.

Manage expectations

Reassure the customer that they won’t be charged for complaining. Be clear and up front about how long it will take to investigate the complaint. Don’t set yourself unrealistic timeframes but remember after eight weeks from the date the complaint is raised, the customer can refer their complaint to the Legal Ombudsman whether you have concluded your process or not.

Scheme rule - the eight-week time limit:

We have seen complaint procedures that fail to identify that the eight weeks to resolve the complaint starts as soon as the service provider has received a complaint and not when the service provider confirms that they have begun their complaint process.

This is addressed in Scheme Rule 4.2 which says:

 

“4.2 But a complainant can use the Legal Ombudsman if:

  1. a) the complaint has not been resolved to the complainant’s satisfaction within eight weeks of being made to the authorised person;”
Complaints process: Respond

Share your findings

When responding to the complaint, you should set out what you have investigated and what you have found. You need to include as much detail as is required to ensure the customer understands how you have reached your conclusion. Again, your communication here needs to be clear, with a neutral tone that avoids emotive or provocative language. Keep your communication jargon free.

Here it can be useful to bullet point the complaint areas and respond to each point, providing evidence where possible.

Remember your service does not have to be perfect. The Legal Ombudsman will look to determine if the service provided was reasonable.

Useful Information

How we determine complaints - the key questions we consider when determining service

Putting things right if there has been unreasonable service

It is important to be honest. If you have found the service to be unreasonable, be clear about this and explain what will be done as a result. Remember an early apology can go a long way to resolving issues.

When offering an apology, where you have concluded that the service was unreasonable, really listen to what the customer is saying and construct your apology based upon what they say they are unhappy with.

A well-meaning apology will:

  • Recognise poor service or recognise the customer’s dissatisfaction;
  • Take responsibility where appropriate
  • Provide reasons for service failings
  • Offer regret for a service that has fallen below the expected standard
  • Offer redress where appropriate

Acknowledge what went wrong and offer the customer a suitable remedy, along with a full explanation of what happened. The remedy should be proportionate to the level of poor service. For example, if there was a small administrative error that didn’t adversely impact their case, but which caused minor inconvenience, an apology might be more appropriate. If, on the other hand, they’ve been overcharged, it would be sensible to apologise, refund the amount and perhaps pay a small amount of compensation.

Useful Information

Our approach to putting things right - remedy guidance

Putting things right when the service has been reasonable

An apology doesn’t have to mean you have provided poor service; it is possible to apologise even when the service has been reasonable. It can be a way of expressing empathy and understanding and as defined in our Scheme Rules, ‘an apology will not of itself be treated as an admission of liability’ by the Legal Ombudsman.

Useful Information

Scheme rules - (section 5.21) the framework for how we resolve complaints

In the below example, the service provider did not uphold the complaints, but they started their response in the following way: 

Client care is extremely important to us here at [firm] so I am truly sorry to hear of your dissatisfaction both with regards to the service you have been offered by our firm, as well as the basis of our charging.

 

It is important I have a clear understanding of the complaints in issue. I hope to have summarised them correctly below…

If you found that the service provided was reasonable, be clear about this and explain why you’ve formed this view, sharing evidence where possible.

Below is an example of a good complaint response because:

  • it is simple, clear and jargon free
  • it has a professional and courteous tone
  • it leads with an apology (not necessarily an admission)
  • it acknowledges feedback is a good thing and that the issue raised is valid
  • it explains why there is no remedy required
  • it ends with what will be done to improve the service

I’m sorry that, on this occasion, our service did not meet your expectations. Feedback is very important to us as a company, and I appreciate the time you have taken to bring this to my attention....

I have reviewed the file and you are correct that there was a lack of regular updates between the file creation on 10 August 2017 and 18 October 2017. I do apologise for this lack of updates, and I acknowledge that this may have caused you some frustration. Please be assured however that this did not in any way hinder the progression of your transaction, and all work was progressed as soon as was possible. Nevertheless, this is not the standard of service I would have expected us to provide and for this I apologise.

I must balance this with the fact that you did not request an update during this time, or contact us to let us know that you were feeling frustrated. In the circumstances, whilst I do not consider that a remedy is appropriate in this matter, I would like to confirm that I have provided feedback to the staff involved, and going forward, we are looking into sending automated updates on cases where there has been little progress.

Conclude your own complaints procedure

If you are unable to resolve your customer’s complaint, and they remain unhappy, you should provide them with a final response and signpost them to the Legal Ombudsman. Signposting them is a regulatory requirement.


Think:

  • Have you made it clear that you have come to the end of your complaints procedure and that this is your final response?
  • Have you included all of the Legal Ombudsman’s contact details within your final response?
  • Have you confirmed that a complaint needs to be raised with the Legal Ombudsman within six months of the date of your final response?

Scheme rules – time limits:

When signposting, it is important to include accurate timescales for when the customer can complain, particularly if you have reached the end of your complaints process.


We see many complaint procedures and final responses that have incorrect time limits included. Remember an Ombudsman has the discretion to accept complaints where time limits have not been outlined correctly.

Useful Information

Signposting guidance -  signposting requirements
Scheme rules - (section 4) the framework for how we resolve complaints

Responding to challening situations - support for service providers.

Complaints process: Learn

Finally, the process doesn’t end with the final response. Is there anything you can learn from or improve on, going forward? If you routinely see a lot of complaints in similar areas, a small change may make all the difference.

Good complaints handling can be positive for service providers – dealing with complaints effectively gives customers confidence that a service provider is customer focused. An effective complaints procedure can also help you learn from mistakes and identify ways to improve the services you are providing, which can only be good for business.

Case Study
Case Study
learn from the complaint
A service provider making positive change
Firm A could not retrieve the paperwork from a Help to Buy Scheme resulting in the completion of a property being delayed, impacting their customer. The customer complained to the firm and initially the firm took the position that it wasn’t their fault as they had spent considerable time trying to retrieve the paperwork.

However, upon rereading the complaint, the firm realised that the complaint wasn’t about the delayed completion but the fact that they hadn’t kept the customer fully advised that this was a possibility.

The firm offered the customer a small reduction of fees and the complaint was resolved.

Following this complaint, the firm have changed their procedures and now make sure that customers are aware of any potential impact on their purchases and any problems that may arise. The complaint allowed the firm to make changes to their processes and if the customer hadn’t complained, they may have duplicated the same problem over and over.

Useful Information

We have lots of useful guides, research and information available on our website to support service providers with their complaints handling. Take a look at our information centre and learning resources pages to find out more.

Learning resources