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Dealing with complaints from prospective clients

18 October 2019

Complaints from prospective clients

The Legal Ombudsman can accept complaints from prospective clients where:

  • a person has unreasonably been refused a service
  • a person has persistently or unreasonably been offered a service that they do not want

Reasonable reasons for refusing to provide a service include:

  • you do not undertake that type of work
  • the client is unable to fund the work required
  • you are too busy/do not have time to do the work
  • ethical, regulatory or other reasons to refuse (eg suspicion of money laundering, conflict of interest, insurance issues), or
  • the case is too complex or difficult or you do not have the relevant skills and experience.

The above is a non-exhaustive list and there may be other reasonable reasons for refusing to provide a service.

You should consider whether your decision to refuse service is reasonable on the facts and whether it is likely to lead you to breach the principle requiring you to act with integrity.

It is unlawful to refuse to provide a service to a prospective client on the basis of age; disability; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex or sexual orientation. It is also contrary to the SRA Code of Conduct.

Where you refuse to provide a service to a client you should provide them with a reason for that refusal. We believe that it is reasonable to provide that reason in the form that the request was made to you eg in an email if the request is via email.

The Legal Ombudsman recognises that there will be limited paperwork in cases relating to prospective clients.

In some cases, where an enquiry is by email, then the response will be recorded. In other cases, for example enquiries via phone or in person, there may be no record.

Given that a complaint may be made to the Ombudsman, you may wish to consider making a note of what has happened in some cases, for example, if the prospective client seems upset or angry about your refusal to provide a service. Regardless of whether you make a note of what has occurred, you should provide a legitimate reason for not providing a service.

Where the firm has not provided a service, the Legal Ombudsman would not normally expect the full complaints procedure to be followed. Instead, if you receive a complaint regarding refusal of service, a short explanation of why you refused to act should be sufficient. You should also signpost the client to the Legal Ombudsman.

Understandably, the profession is concerned about the possibility of prospective clients being able to complain about being refused a service.

However, where a person is complaining about being refused a service, they will need to produce evidence that there was no legitimate reason for the refusal to provide the service. They will also need to show that there has been a financial loss or that they have been unreasonably inconvenienced by the refusal. For this reason, we believe that these types of complaint will be rare.

If, however, you find evidence that there was no legitimate reason for refusal of service then the complaint should be dealt with via your firm's normal complaints handling procedure.

Case fees

All complaints the Legal Ombudsman investigates incur a £400 case fee unless there are reasons for it to waive the fee.

The decision to waive a case fee will depend on the outcome of the investigation. For example, if it finds that a firm has done nothing wrong, or that the firm has already made a reasonable offer before the Ombudsman became involved, it will waive the case fee unless it believes that the firm had not properly dealt with the complaint in-house.

For this reason it is important that you follow your complaints handling procedure fully and where appropriate offer compensation. There is more information on handling complaints in our handling complaints practice note.

Even where you do not feel a complaint is justified you should still ensure your procedure is followed, as the Legal Ombudsman will not waive a case fee where it finds you have not handled it properly, even if he finds that the complaint is unjustified.

Time limits

The time limits, as set out in the current Scheme Rules, for the Ombudsman accepting a complaint are:

“Ordinarily:

  1. a) the act or omission, or when the complainant should reasonably have known there was cause for complaint, must have been after 5 October 2010; and
  2. b) the complainant must refer the complaint to the Legal Ombudsman no later than:
    • six years from the act/omission; or
    • three years from when the complainant should reasonably have known there was cause for complaint.”

The time limit for a client to complain to the Legal Ombudsman remains six months from the end of your complaints process if you provide full information about the client's right to take a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman at that point.

Therefore, it is important to ensure that you provide complainants with the following information prominently in writing at the end of your complaints process:

  • their right to take a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman
  • the timeframes for doing so, and
  • the contact details for the Legal Ombudsman.

In exceptional circumstances the Ombudsman may consider extending these time limits.

See also our practice notes on handling complaints and client care letters.