/ Technology

Why do we need a new Legal Ombudsman?

Judge's gavel

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?

pickle says:
9 October 2010

We’ll have to see how it works out. I think it is a good idea – how often do we complain about our legal representatives? Perhaps this will encourage solicitors to work more quickly – they are renowned for the time they take to do even a simple task.

Sophie Gilbert says:
14 October 2010

I wonder why any of us should be unhappy about this, except crooked lawyers maybe? I’ve heard of a few. Like pickle says, see how it goes.

I think it’s a great idea – having recently heard two horror stories about solicitors, wholly unrelated but terribly detrimental to their clients.

However, I do wish that the LeO had greater clout *sigh*

K Gilbert says:
9 December 2010

I though which might like to hear an opinion on the new Legal ombudsman service. I am beginning to wish I had never gone to them.
It was very easy to make my complaint and I was contacted within a week to discuss it an was told that if my version was correct I did indeed have a case worth investigation as it was quite serious. I was asked to forward documentation. Part of the problem was the solicitor would not release my documentation which I was told they could obtain for me. I was then told the solicitors would be expected to respond in fourteen days. Although I had produced all I had by week three we are now at fifty six days and my investigator has still not got the information she requires from my solicitors. Their aim was to resolve the case in fifty days. All I seem to get is a promise to contact me in a few days but this never materialises which has resulted in a massive loss of confidence in the service. I feel they cant give an opinion but should at least keep me inform that the matter is progressing.