​Avoiding Legal Ombudsman complaints

7 Minutes

Aside from debt collection, dealing with customer complaints is probably the most dreaded part of being a Solicitor.

Most people enter the legal profession with a desire to help others, therefore, having to digest client complaints can be particularly upsetting, especially if they are escalated to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO). The best way to avoid a client referring a complaint to the LeO is to understand the types of complaints received by the Ombudsman’s office in the past. And thankfully, the LeO makes this task remarkably easy by publishing annual statistics.

Highlights from the 2020/21 Legal Ombudsman Overview of Annual Complaints

Below are the key findings from the latest LeO overview report:

• In 2020/21, 4,573 new cases were accepted and 4,702[1] were concluded.

• Evidence of poor service was found in 55% of complaints.

• Residential conveyancing was by far the practice area that received the most complaints (30%), with family law coming next (14%), and Wills and

• Probate and personal injury tying for third place (13%).

• The top five reasons for complaints being referred to the LeO were, a) failure to advise, b) delay and failure to progress, c) poor communication, d) cost, and e) failure to follow instructions.

Compensation was awarded in 37% of resolved cases.

Many law firms are not dealing adequately with complaints during the initial stages

In almost a quarter of complaints received, the LeO recognised that the way the complaint was dealt with in the first instance was unsatisfactory. In its previous year’s report, the LeO provided a helpful list of common issues that created barriers to resolving complaints (or ‘ways to lose clients and infuriate people’):

• Not taking the time to fully understand the complaint – in other words, not listening.

• Too much narrative and not enough analysis – trying to talk your way out of taking responsibility.

• Making promises and not keeping them – saying anything to make the complainant go away.

• Use of language (jargon and legalistic language can create barriers) – talking down to the complainant.

• Taking complaints personally – getting huffy with the complainant.

• Not being willing to admit when things have gone wrong – it’s not me, it’s you.

• Not signposting consumers to the Legal Ombudsman – hoping that the complainant will simply drop the matter.

• Not responding within the eight-week time limit – ignoring the complaint

How to avoid complaints escalating to the Legal Ombudsman

Remember, clients cannot complain to the LeO without giving you and your law firm the opportunity to resolve the matter through internal complaints procedures. Therefore, if the client’s complaint is genuine and they are a reasonable individual, your internal complaints processes should remedy matters well before the client considers complaining to the LeO. Below are our top tips for handling client complaints positively and professionally.

1. Be polite, empathetic, and impartial – it takes a great deal of maturity and self-control to place your personal feelings and professional pride to one side and objectively consider a complaint concerning your work. If possible, take time out before responding and go for a walk or have a chat with a colleague in order to gain some perspective on the matter before talking to the client.

2. Check your firm’s complaint handling policies and procedures – to protect the firm’s reputation and brand and ensure regulatory compliance, all staff must follow a uniform process when dealing with client complaints. Ideally one person in the firm should take overall responsibility for complaints to avoid them disappearing into the notorious ‘too hard basket’.

3. Listen – the old adage “you have two ears and one mouth – use them in proportion” applies perfectly when handling a client complaint. Remember, your client is probably angry, having stewed over their grievance for days or perhaps weeks. The best way to defuse the situation is to ensure you listen carefully and let the person on the other end of the phone (or email) know that you have understood them. Believe it or not, many complaints are pretty much resolved at this point and as long as you provide a solution and action what you promise to do, the client will walk away happy, refer you to their friends and family, and write a nice Google review.

4. Once you have worked out a solution, follow through within the agreed timeframes and keep communicating with the client, especially if any unavoidable delays crop up.

5. Record the details of the complaint, the solutions provided, and any lessons learnt to avoid a similar situation happening again.

Concluding comments

If you have done everything above and the client remains unhappy, you have a duty under section 112 of the Legal Services Act to direct them to the LeO. One way to minimise your risk of a client grievance being escalated is to use a third-party complaints handler to resolve matters. They can provide a specific resource to deal with client concerns and offer an independent and impartial view to both the client and the legal team involved.

To discover more about our virtual in-house complaints manager services, please email us at info@43legal.com

Please note that this article does not constitute legal advice.

[1] Some of the concluded complaints were filed in the previous year, hence the greater number of concluded complaints reported as compared to those received.

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