It may not have made big headlines, but last week’s launch of a new Legal Ombudsman was a huge win for us all (sorry to those in Northern Ireland, this doesn’t apply to you yet). We think it matters – but do you?
So what’s the story? Well, the legal landscape for consumers changed radically last Wednesday. In England and Wales the Legal Ombudsman (already being dubbed LeO), a brand new statutory complaints handling body, opened its doors.
On the same day, Scottish Parliament passed legislation to further modernise the legal profession north of the border. Which? was one of the main voices fighting for all these changes.
Will LeO roar for consumers?
LeO flows out of the Legal Services Act 2007, which brings the legal profession into the 21st century in England and Wales. Its aim is for the Ombudman to be a consumer-friendly complaints body covering all legal professions, from barristers to solicitors.
As its Chief Executive Adam Sampson has said that LeO replaces a ‘bewildering and very inefficient’ complaints system. It can impose penalties on lawyers found to be at fault, ranging from demanding apologies to compensation payments of up to £30,000.
But is this enough? And will they deal with all types of complaints and publish meaningful data? To its credit, LeO is already consulting about publishing complaints data and you won’t be surprised that Which? strongly backs this idea so that consumers can make informed choices about which legal professionals to use.
But it’s a concern that LeO can’t deal with complaints about other people’s lawyers. For example, over 500 consumers have complained about law firms wrongly accusing them of illegal online copyright theft. Instead of being handled by LeO, these have been referred to the lawyer’s disciplinary body, the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
And what about negligence claims? LeO is supposed to avoid the expense and stress of going to court for any claim up to £30,000 but will this actually happen if your complaint also alleges your lawyer was negligent? Might you still have to fight that in court rather than have LeO adjudicate on your behalf?
Legal support in Scotland and Northern Ireland
As for the Scottish changes (yet to be implemented), these flow directly out of a Which? super-complaint to the Office of Fair Trading in 2007. It’s been a long slog, and there’s still a way to go, but the Scottish legal market will soon catch up with England and Wales.
We’re particularly welcoming the fact that Scottish consumers will be able use a non-lawyer in court – known as a ‘McKenzie Friend’. Also, the legal market will be liberalised in Scotland just as it will be in England and Wales in 2011.
Which? will continue to keep a close eye on LeO. We want it to work well and actually it’s in the interests of both consumers and lawyers that it does so. That’s why I for one am welcoming its launch and all the future changes still to come in Scotland, England and Wales… and maybe Northern Ireland. Are you?