Blog by Elisabeth Davies, Chair of the OLC

Like all organisations, the first quarter of the new financial year has proven to be a busy time for both the OLC Board and the Legal Ombudsman.

In July, the Board published its 2021/22 Annual Reports and Accounts, setting out the progress LeO has made in transforming the way it works. Despite a challenging backdrop against which the 2021/22 year began, LeO’s willingness to change and the openness with which it worked, have made a profound difference. There is no denying that the number of customers waiting in the Pre-Assessment Pool remains unacceptably high, but the action LeO took over the last year, towards becoming a more proportionate, flexible service means that the outlook has shifted considerably.

Key highlights from the report which demonstrate the improvement LeO has made, include:

  • How LeO’s focus on improving saw it resolve 6,576 cases in 2021/22: a 40% increase on the 4,702 it resolved in 2020/21.
  • The range of early resolution initiatives LeO tested and developed, which in 2022/23 are expected to make up nearly a third of all resolved complaints.
  • The impact these initiatives can have on waiting times – including a 66% reduction in the overall time taken to resolve low-complexity complaints.

In my last blog in March, I reported on the Legal Ombudsman’s Business Plan and Budget and outlined how the ambitions for 2022/23 marked a clear step-change in what LeO will deliver over the next 12 months. I have always talked about the importance of the need to avoid overpromising and underdelivering. The first quarter of 2022/23 has seen a case closure rate of nearly 97% of the Business Plan target. This is a huge 43.48% increase on closures in comparison to Q1 of 2021/22. It is also important to note that the Pre-Assessment Pool currently stands at 5,154 against a Business Plan forecast of 5,568. This means LeO is ahead of where it said it would be at this point and the 7.4% variance means less people are waiting for their complaint to be investigated. Within the Business Plan we talked about 2022/23 being the turning point for increasing closures to reduce Pre- Assessment Pool numbers and customer journey wait times. 

As a Board we are, of course, very pleased to see these figures, but we also know that work is not complete and that LeO must continue to deliver improvements to further drive down inefficiencies and reduce its backlog. The strong progress achieved in 2021/22 and in the first quarter of 2021/22 has laid a solid foundation to achieve the priorities outlined in the Business Plan. But work is progressing with pace and the focus remains on looking across this next quarter and how LeO will continue to turn improvements to operational efficiencies into better outcomes for customers.

A significant part of LeO’s recovery plans has also been about engagement with, and listening to, the wider sector. Stakeholders told us that radical options were required to transform the organisation and overcome operational challenges both internally and within the operating environment. The changes that have been made through the early resolution and proportionality initiatives are already delivering an improved customer experience and driving operational efficiencies but it’s also important that LeO’s new ways of working are reinforced by a set of Scheme Rules which support its longer-term stability.

Following consultation earlier this year, it was clear that there is significant support both for the short-term operational and longer-term strategic changes proposed. There is a genuine support for LeO developing a more proportionate process which focuses on minimal formality - allowing a complaint to be dealt with as efficiently as possible and outcomes being reached at the most appropriate opportunity.  

Following approval from the OLC Board in May, the proposals were submitted to the Legal Services Board for their Board meeting on 19 July. Following detailed consideration, the LSB consented to the changes proposed and in doing so, welcomed the OLC’s support of LeO’s “willingness to pursue radical changes to improve outcomes for consumers seeking redress and increase public confidence in the performance of LeO.”

Many of you may have seen that given the significance of the changes, the LSB are rightly ensuring that the impact of changes will be properly evaluated. As a Board, the OLC is also committed to ensure that any changes to the Scheme Rules are not unintentionally creating barriers to customers and that any changes support the ability to resolve complaints in the most proportionate and more efficient way. In assuring the LSB and itself, the Board will be working with LeO over the coming months to ensure that the monitoring framework developed adequately identifies the differential impacts the Scheme Rules changes may have on all those coming to LeO with a complaint. A high level project plan is already in place for all elements of the work required to implement the Scheme Rules changes, and reporting is a key element of that. Whilst work is progressing to understand the time frames for implementation, we recognise that communication to stakeholders is vital, and we will continue to appropriately engage with all those affected by the changes at the earliest opportunity.

As I write this blog, we are already a significant way into the new financial year. As ever, there is no complacency about the challenges ahead. However, there are clear and consistent signs that LeO is on the path to a sustained and sustainable level of good performance and quality service – one which meets the needs and expectations of both users and providers of legal services. I will end with the same commitment that I gave in my last blog which is ‘to continue with a vision of change and transparency’ - because a thriving Legal Ombudsman really matters, not only to individual legal service providers and customers, but to the legal services sector as a whole.