This page includes information on how the Legal Ombudsman will handle complaints, the remedies available to it and the fee it will charge for handling complaints.
Changes to the Legal Ombudsman's rules
The Legal Ombudsman updated its rules on 1 February 2013. These include changes to the rules on time limits, who can make a complaint, compensation limits and case fees.
Complaints to the Legal Ombudsman
The Legal Ombudsman has published data on the type of complaints it receives. We have pulled out the key information to help solicitors understand where complaints come from and how they might be prevented.
What is the Legal Ombudsman?
The Legal Ombudsman deals with all public complaints across the entire legal sector (not just solicitors). The emphasis of the Ombudsman is on speed and informality, with the goal of resolving complaints by agreement rather than a quasi-judicial process. If agreed resolution is not possible, one of the team of ombudsmen will make a decision. But that decision will not be based on legal precedent or regulation but on a judgement based on what is fair and reasonable in the circumstances of that case, as required by the Legal Services Act 2010.
What is a complaint?
The Legal Ombudsman defines a complaint as an expression of dissatisfaction with a service.
To come within the jurisdiction of the Legal Ombudsman, the complaint must relate to an act or omission about a service which an authorised person (or their employee) provided to:
- the complainant; or
- another authorised person who procured the service on behalf of the complainant; or
- a personal representative / trustee where the complainant is a beneficiary of the trust / estate; or
- offered, or refused to provide, to the complainant.
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Who can complain?
The Legal Ombudsman will accept complaints from individuals and small businesses, charities, clubs, societies, associations, and trusts.
Where a complainant who has referred a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman is no longer able to pursue it, the complaint can be continued by certain people such as someone with lasting power of attorney or the executor of the complainant's will.
The Legal Ombudsman will consider complaints from personal representatives or residuary beneficiaries of a person, who dies before they could refer their complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.
The Legal Ombudsman will also accept complaints from prospective clients and we have provided additional guidance on this.
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When can they complain?
Complainants must normally try to resolve their complaint via a firm's complaints handling process before they can refer it to the Legal Ombudsman. However, if a firm takes more than eight weeks to resolve a complaint, than a complainant may refer it to the Legal Ombudsman without waiting for the firm's final response.
Ordinarily a complainant must refer the complaint to the Legal Ombudsman within six months from them receiving a written response to the complaint from the firm, as long as the response includes, prominently, the following details:
- that they may go to the Legal Ombudsman if they are dissatisfied with the response; and
- the contact details of the Legal Ombudsman and a warning that they must refer the complaint within six months.
Normally complainants must refer a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman within six years from the act / omission occurring or three years from when they should have reasonably known it had occurred. Despite this time limit, the Legal Ombudsman will not normally accept complaints about an act or omission before 5 October 2010.
However, the Ombudsman has the discretion to accept complaints outside of the timelimits in exceptional circumstances.
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How will the Ombudsman resolve complaints?
The Legal Ombudsman tries to resolve complaints at the earliest stage possible.
The first stage in the process will normally be an attempt to resolve the complaint informally. If this is not possible, the Legal Ombudsman will investigate the complaint, ensuring that both parties have a chance to make representations.
The Legal Ombudsman will then provide parties with their provisional decision (assessment) and both parties will have a chance to respond within a fixed deadline. If neither party indicates disagreement with the decision, then the Legal Ombudsman can treat the complaint as resolved.
If the provisional decision is not agreed, an ombudsman will make a final decision based on what is fair and reasonable in all the circumstances of the case. When considering what is fair and reasonable the ombudsman will take into account, among other considerations:
- the decision a court might make
- the relevant Code of Conduct rules
- good practice
The complainant will be asked to accept the determination and, if the complainant does so, it will become final and binding on all parties. Neither party may then start or continue legal proceedings in respect of the complaint. If the complainant rejects the determination (or it is treated as such due to non-response) then the legal rights of both parties are unaffected.
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What evidence will the Legal Ombudsman consider?
An ombudsman has the power to require information that he or she considers necessary to make a determination from either party. The ombudsman can consider a wide range of evidence, including evidence from approved regulators, third parties, and evidence given in confidence where it is reasonable and necessary to do so.
The Legal Ombudsman will normally consider a solicitor's file on the complaint for example the record that has been kept about how the complaint was handled. It is therefore important that solicitors ensure that they keep accurate and thorough files on each complaint they receive.
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What happens if I fail to cooperate with the Ombudsman?
The Code of Conduct requires that solicitors cooperate with the Legal Ombudsman. If a solicitor does not cooperate with the Legal Ombudsman, then an ombudsman may inform the SRA of this. Where either party fails to comply with a deadline, then the ombudsman may:
- proceed with the investigation, consideration or determination;
- draw inferences from the failure;
- if the failure is on the part of the complainant, dismiss the complaint; or
- if the failure is on the part of the authorised person, include compensation for any inconvenience caused to the complainant in any award made.
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What remedies are available to the Ombudsman?
Where the ombudsman finds in favour of the complainant, the ombudsman may require a solicitor to do any of the following:
- pay compensation of a specified amount for loss suffered;
- pay interest on that compensation from a specified time;
- pay compensation of a specified amount for inconvenience / distress caused;
- ensure (and pay for) putting right any specified error, omission or other deficiency;
- take (and pay for) any specified action in the interests of the complainant;
- pay a specified amount for the costs the complainant incurred in pursuing the complaint; and / or
- limit fees to a specified amount.
There is a limit of £50,000 on the total value that can be awarded in respect of:
- the cost of putting right any errors; and
- the cost of any specified action carried out in the interests of a complainant.
However, this limit does not apply to awards relating to interest on compensation, costs incurred by the complainant in pursuing the complaint, the limitation of fees, and the interest on fees to be refunded. Thus the cost could be higher than £50,000. However, it should be noted that the complainants will not normally require assistance to pursue a complaint with the Legal Ombudsman and therefore awards of costs are likely to be rare.
A final determination can be enforced through the High Court by the complainant or by an ombudsman if the complainant agrees. A Court that makes an enforcement order against a solicitor must inform the SRA.
The Ombudsman may also report any suspected misconduct on the part of a solicitor to the SRA.
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What are the fees for the Ombudsman's service?
Unless a complaint is outside of the Legal Ombudsman’s jurisdiction or is dismissed or discontinued under paragraph 5.7 of the rules, a case fee is potentially payable. There will be a £400 charge unless:
- the complaint was withdrawn or abandoned by the complainant during the course of the investigation; or
- the Ombudsman decides that any remedy offered by the lawyer under their own complaints procedure was reasonable and they find that the lawyer took all reasonable steps to resolve the complaint.
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