Complaints Handling and the Legal Ombudsman

Complaints handling can sometimes be left to the bottom of the pile

Complaints handling can sometimes be left to the bottom of the pile and be last on the 'to do' list. However, with the advent of the SRA outcomes focused regulations, the increased powers of the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) and the ever present concern over PI claims, it has never been more important that complaints are handled in a proactive, timely, cost effective way.

The LeO have new scheme rules coming into force as of 1st February 2013 which all practices should be aware of. They are:

  1. Pre client complaints
    The LeO now has the ability to look at a complaint from a person who is not officially a client of your firm in the strictest sense.

  2. Time limit
    The time limit for a client to make a complaint has been increased from 1 year to 6 years after the act or omission that has led to the initial complaint (or 3 years from when a client should reasonably have been aware of the act or omission). This time limit is effective after 6th October 2010.
    In practice what this means to you is that a client can still come back to you 6 years after you have acted for them.

  3. Increase in compensation level
    The LeO has increased maximum compensatory limits from £30,000 to £50,000. Any payment of compensation can include an award for inadequate handling of the complaint.

  4. Removal of two 'free' complaints
    The LeO has a flat fee charge for each complaint of £400, which is additional to any compensation award they make. At present if your complaint is escalated to the LeO, and is substantiated, then for the first two cases within each financial year (1st April to 31st March) the flat fee is waived.

    However as of 1st April 2013 no substantiated complaints will be free of the flat fee.

    Where complaints are not substantiated LeO still has the ability to waive the flat fee, but this will be considered on an individual case basis and will include consideration of how the complaint has been handled by the firm.


As well as the above key points it should be noted that the LeO is now publishing data in respect of complaints made to them where an Ombudsman’s decision has been made. If such information is generally available, practices should consider the detrimental effect on their reputation from having failed to adequately deal with a client’s complaint in the first place.

There have been recent calls to make complaints procedures more accessible and simpler for the client. This, coupled with the increased time limits for clients to bring their concerns to you, means many firms face having to deal with more complaints.

Managing complaints in an effective and timely fashion is often stressful to those directly involved. It is certainly time consuming for them and for the partner or senior fee earner responsible for handling complaints within the firm. It costs your practice time and money.

It is therefore imperative that your complaints procedure is accessible, compliant with what is expected and, most importantly to your business, is cost effective. Firms need to make sure that their complaints procedures are robust, well managed and capable of delivering learning and development to the practice.

A well-managed complaints process will:

  • instill confidence in your client that their complaint will be taken seriously
  • demonstrate to the LeO your commitment to improving the service to your clients
  • save cost and improve your reputation (research undertaken by LeO has shown 82% of clients choose a solicitor based on recommendation, so it is important you deliver the best service you can and go the extra mile to resolve any complaint made)
  • help with delivering improvements across a practice

One solution can be to outsource your complaints management. This can have a number of benefits:

  • a. it can save time and reduce lost fee earning for key members of your firm
    b. it can instill further buy in from the client by showing them that their complaints are being managed in an objective manner.
    c. it can build further credibility with the LeO as their own guidance also advocates passing any complaint to a third party who has never had any     involvement in the case

In summary, the new rules being introduced by the LeO as of the 1st February 2013 will place more pressure on firms as they manage client complaints. Practices need to review their existing procedures and consider whether these are fit for purpose. Where necessary, complaints procedures need to be strengthened. They need to provide re-assurance to clients that their concerns are being taken seriously. They must also ensure that where genuine problems have occurred they are dealt with appropriately and that there is a feedback process to ensure that lessons are learnt. One effective way of achieving this can be to outsource the complaints management process, giving an independent viewpoint to your practice and focused on delivering cost saving and improvements.

Author: Barbara Spoor
Consultant Complaints Manager at Esterase Ltd

Esterase can provide a specialist consultancy on improving existing complaints procedures. They also provide fully compliant professional complaints handling services and support for legal practices. If you would like more information please:

Call: 08455 199 149



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