To prevent and resolve complaints, it is important to understand what generates them.
Where do complaints come from?
The Legal Ombudsman publishes data about the complaints it receives. The biggest areas for complaints to the Ombudsman in 2018/19 were:
- residential conveyancing – 25%
- personal injury – 14%
- family law – 13%
- wills and probate – 13%
- litigation – 10%
This is partly due to the number of transactions in these areas of law. However, solicitors working in these areas should consider how they can limit the number of complaints going to the ombudsman.
What are complaints about?
The most common causes of complaints to the Legal Ombudsman are:
- delay or failure to progress
- failure to advise or poor advice
- failure to follow instructions
- failure to keep informed
- failure to reply
Complaints to the Legal Ombudsman, 2018/19
Many of these areas can be addressed by clear communication.
Clients are more likely to complain about delay or failure to advise than about costs. So, although it is important to make sure cost information is accurate, carrying out your clients’ instructions promptly and keeping them updated on the progress of their case will also help you to avoid complaints.
Types of complaints vary between different areas of law. For example:
- complaints about excessive costs are most common in commercial law
- complaints about delay or failure to progress are most common in personal injury and wills and probate
- complaints about failure to follow instructions are most common in criminal law
See the Legal Ombudsman’s data for full details of types of complaint by area of law.
Preventing complaints from escalating
Firms usually focus on formal complaints: letters or emails that clearly state that they are a complaint. However, you should also try to pick up on any less formal signs that a client is not satisfied, and deal with the issue if possible before it becomes a formal complaint.
It may help to consider the language you use. Research commissioned by the Legal Ombudsman showed that customers can be frustrated by solicitors’ use of jargon, attempts to justify their actions, and reluctance to offer an apology. See The Language of Complaints (Legal Ombudsman, 2017).
The ombudsman recommends that solicitors:
- give the customer a formal acknowledgement and outline of the procedure
- avoid unnecessary jargon or detail in the response
- make it clear how they investigated the customer’s concerns and how they reached a conclusion
- thank the customer for bringing the matter to their attention
- where appropriate, give an apology up front, and acknowledge the stress caused to the customer
Reviewing complaints to improve services
You should record and review information on the complaints that your practice receives. This can help you to:
- identify trends in complaints and areas of service that need to improve
- find out whether changes to policy or procedures are reducing complaints
- assess how effective your complaints management process is in resolving complaints internally
- build up an understanding of appropriate remedies to common complaints
Practice note: Handling complaints