Blog by Elisabeth Davies, Chair of the OLC

Stabilising for recovery; Recovering to improve

I last wrote for the LeO stakeholder newsletter in June when many of us were becoming used to working from home and working with colleagues and clients virtually. We know that many firms at this point were unable to deal with complaints, but I have been pleased to see that the level of complaints on hold has begun to reduce, and I know that the Legal Ombudsman is now focusing on making adjustments as firms re-open and deal with their own backlogs.

Like so many organisations we are now getting used to what the Government guidelines mean for the ability of staff to work from the office, either for those who need to because of the nature of their work, or for those who simply cannot work productively at home. 

I’m very aware that this is a further readjustment for staff, coming off the back of six months of constant change that has included managing the implications of the standstill budget; the early impact of the COVID-19 lockdown; the departure of the Chief Ombudsman and a restructured Executive Team.  Further, positive change, is also around the corner, with the new Chief Ombudsman, Paul McFadden, and the new Chief Operating Officer, Sandra Strinati, both joining the Legal Ombudsman early in the New Year. 

The focus must now be on stabilising the organisation and this is exactly what the revised and strengthened Executive Team is seeking to do with their focus on delivering steady and sustainable improvement for the rest of this financial year.  A clear set of performance assumptions have been developed and implemented, and are already showing progress towards a steady improvement trajectory to the end of March 2021.

The OLC Board has supported this incremental approach to improvement and, whilst this will form the core foundation for the recovery plan, we are all clear that much more needs to be done.  The agreed improvement trajectory will result in approaching 5,000 cases waiting for assessment by the end of the year.  This is not acceptable to the OLC Board, to the Legal Ombudsman’s staff, or to customers. A pressing priority for performance must be to improve the experience for customers who are waiting for an investigation to begin. 

The Legal Ombudsman’s Executive has started to look at the next stage of improvements.  This includes the redeployment of Ombudsman resource so that they can work on cases highlighted by the General Enquiries Team where there is the potential for quick wins and early resolution. It will also enable some high complexity cases to be targeted and address a large number of aged files at the front of the queue and the customers who have been waiting too long for their case to be taken. 

Further innovative mitigations are currently being scoped and include pursuing automation of the triaging process through a Case Age Prediction Model – again, freeing up resource to focus on customers waiting too long for assessment; and an automated solution to significantly reduce processing time of front-end contacts.

The 2021 to 2022 budget and planning process, supported by the new Chief Ombudsman and Chief Operating Officer, will explicitly engage the sector in what will be required to further upscale recovery improvement and building on what has been started this year. The consultation document will be shared in the next few weeks and it will show a commitment to being transparent and realistic with the sector; clarity about the resources required to bring about the necessary improvement; and an organisation willing to challenge itself about how it can provide the level of Ombudsman service its customers need.  This consultation is an opportunity to have an honest conversation with service providers, representative bodies and the regulators about the change needed over the next two years and the lifetime of the current strategy.

The last six months has tested the Legal Ombudsman.  Like many other organisations within the legal sector it has had to develop the resilience and skills to adapt to these new circumstances, whether this is inducting staff remotely or through providing virtual training for the profession (the feedback has been excellent with one person saying “One of, if not the best targeted webinars I have attended”).  There is much that Paul and Sandra will need to address and there is also much that they can build on.