Law Society opposes Legal Ombudsman's proposed budget hike

Anjali MouelhiRegulatory Policy Adviser at the Law Society
Anjali Mouelhi

I am a solicitor and the policy adviser to the Regulatory Processes Committee (RPC) which monitors the processes and procedures employed by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) and the Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal (SDT) in their respective roles regulating solicitors. RPC members are all solicitors, many of whom specialise in regulatory and disciplinary matters. All give up their time voluntarily to contribute to the work of the Committee.

Last month the RPC drafted the Law Society’s response to the Office of Legal Complaints (OLC)’s consultation on its Corporate Strategy 2020-23. As the Board of the Legal Ombudsman, the OLC is responsible for establishing the Legal Ombudsman scheme (LeO), creating its rules and overseeing its performance.

Whilst the consultation may sound mundane, it could potentially have serious implications for the profession, particularly if the proposed budget increase is agreed. The Strategy paper, which set out the OLC’s high-level plans for LeO’s forthcoming business year and its plans for the next 3 years, revealed three new strategic objectives:

  1. Improving the experience of its service for complainants and service providers while using its expertise to guide and add value to the complaint journey,
  2. Increasing the transparency and impact of its casework to support greater access to justice, and
  3. Developing its service to ensure it is appropriate for the evolving legal sector.

We support LeO’s first objective regarding improving the experience of all service users; both complainants and legal service providers. Our members have raised concerns about their experiences with LeO, including delays in investigation and decision-making, firms being given unrealistic time scales to respond to LeO correspondence, inconsistent decision making and a failure to keep them informed. Improvements to alleviate such concerns would be welcomed.

A glimpse of what LeO may have in mind in relation to the second objective can be seen in the options it outlined in its discussion paper entitled ‘Transparency and Reporting Impact’. A number of the options are quite ambitious and would have significant cost and resource implications, which, in our view, would result in only marginal benefits to clients. We raised concerns about the impact of some these options on the profession in our response to the discussion paper.

One of the concerns we highlighted was the OLC’s proposed budget increase for 2020/21 from £12.35m to £14.76m with only a slight reduction in the subsequent two years to that figure. The 20% increase in LeO’s budget for 2020/21 could have a significant impact on the profession in terms of practising certificate fees – which affects all solicitors, whether they work for small, medium or large firms, or in-house or as a freelancer. The OLC indicated that a large proportion of the money would be used to close more complaints. How it proposes to do so is not altogether clear due to a lack of information about the level of additional resources required or how they would be deployed.

The OLC also stated that it wished to invest in more feedback to the profession. Whilst we support any feedback which can be given to our members to prevent complaints arising, it did not provide details making it difficult to evaluate whether resources would be better directed elsewhere, for example towards addressing LeO’s service issues and backlog, at least until such time as the service issues have been resolved.

Our Response to the Strategy paper therefore concluded that due to the impact on the profession and the possible repercussions on access to justice, we could not support the OLC’s budgetary increase at the proposed level.