1. Why should firms signpost clients to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO)?
1.1 It is a regulatory requirement.
The Legal Services Board’s requirements that solicitors must inform clients in writing how to complain both at the time of engagement and at the end of their complaints process have been incorporated in the LeO’s scheme rules.
The SRA Transparency Rules 2018 provide that a firm must publish details of its complaints handling procedure on its website, including how and when a complaint can be made to the LeO.
1.2 It is good practice.
While 92% of firms provide information to consumer clients about the LeO at the time of engagement, only 34% provide such information at the end of the firm’s complaints process, and only a disappointing 4% of consumer clients recall receiving this information at the end of the complaints process.
More people complain to the SRA than to the LeO.
The SRA’s remit is restricted to determining complaints about conduct and not to determining complaints about service. However, on receipt of a complaint, it may decide that it has jurisdiction to determine a complaint that it categorises as conduct, but which is actually much more about service.
This is important because the SRA’s approach can be quite aggressive and intrusive, and the SRA has much wider powers in terms of applying penalties than the LeO.
On balance, it is better to have the LeO deal with a complaint rather than the SRA.
1.3 Time limits.
There are four requirements.
A firm must tell a client in its final response that:
1.3.1 – the response is the firm’s final response.
1.3.2 – the client has six months within which to refer their complaint to the LeO, if they are dissatisfied with the firm’s response. AND
1.3.3 – a complaint must be referred to the LeO no more than six years from the date of the act or omission giving rise to the complaint OR
1.3.4 – a complaint must be referred to the LeO no more than three years from when the client should reasonably have known that there was cause for complaint.
If a firm fails to state that the firm’s response is its final response (see 1.3.1 above), the six months’ time limit, within which a complaint must be made to the LeO (see 1.3.2 above), will not start to run and the LeO’s jurisdiction to deal with the complaint will remain live.
2. When and where to signpost.
The requirement that a firm publish details of its complaints handling procedure on its website, including how and when a complaint can be made to the LeO has already been noted (see 1.1 above).
2.2 Terms of engagement.
A firm should draw to the attention of its client details of the firm’s complaints procedure and how the client can make a complaint in the firm’s client care letter, terms of business and any other document which contains some or all the firm’s terms of engagement.
2.3 When a client seems to be dissatisfied with the firm’s service.
A complaint may be oral or written. The LeO defines a complaint as an “oral or written expression of dissatisfaction”. Use of the word “complaint” is not required. It is, therefore, good practice to be alert to the contents of conversations with the client or correspondence from the client, which indicate that the client may be unhappy.
This also provides an opportunity to deal with an issue or a potential issue at an early stage.
2.4 When a firm has finished its first-tier complaints process.
If a firm has been unable to resolve a complaint to the client’s satisfaction by use of the firm’s complaints process, the firm should:
- Tell the client expressly that this is the firm’s final response (see 1.3.1 above)
- Tell the client that they may complain to the LeO and the time limits within which a complaint may be referred to the LeO (see 1.3.2, 1.3.3 and 1.3.4 above)
- Tell the client how to contact the LeO
- Signpost the client to an entity that provides an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) service to that provided by the LeO (see 3 below).
3. What about ADR?
The Alternative Dispute Resolution for Consumer Disputes (Competent Authorities and Information) Regulations 2015 (as amended) requires a firm to give its clients the details of an ADR entity that has been approved to deal with the complaint. However, the firm may state that it is not prepared to submit to an ADR entity for the determination of the client’s complaint.
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