Setting out your terms and conditions
Firms can’t just draft their client care letters and then forget all about them. These are vital documents and need to be kept up to date, says Vicky Ling
Terms of business letters are frequently ignored from the day they are adopted. Having gone through the pain of careful drafting, it appears many practices heave a sigh of relief and forget that they will need updating. Getting the terms of business right ticks so many boxes in relation to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) code of conduct – both ‘Outcomes’, which are mandatory; and ‘Indicative behaviours’, which are not mandatory but are good evidence that the Outcomes are being achieved (see table).
It helps to have one person responsible for all standard letters throughout the practice, so that they are all written in house style, using your house font and are consistent.
However, it is still important to involve all departments as they are likely to need to include information which is particular to their own work types. My advice is to develop a standard ‘terms of business’ document, which can be used by all departments, and to have a separate ‘client care letter’, which deals with the client retainer, any special issues applying to the type of work or funding, such as legal aid.
Common headings for terms of business letters could be: responsibilities; quality; complaints; charges and expenses (general information); limitation of liability; financial crime; data protection; email; storage of papers and documents.
Individual client care letters headings could cover: what we will be doing for you; timescale; responsibility for the work; charges and expenses, as relevant to the particular matter or case; information relating to your case – a work type specific section; costs estimates; ending instructions.
It is important to keep terms of business/client care letters as short as possible, so do not be tempted to waste words to take a swipe at external bodies. For example: ‘I am sorry that I have to write this rather formal letter; but this is information the Law Society requires me to give you.’ It is a formal letter because it concerns a contract between the practice and the client and it is actually helpful to both parties to ensure the terms of the contract are clear.
Crime departments need letters which deal with legal aid at the police station, Magistrates Court and the Crown Court. They need to be up to date in relation to means-testing information and any payments clients may be required to make, such as payments towards prosecution costs. In family departments, you usually need a letter for legal help/family help (lower), emergency certificates, means and merits-tested certificates, and non-means and nonmerit-tested work. There is no need to tell the client about the statutory charge in care cases, where it will never apply. Civil work generally requires similar letters to family, but again tailored to any particular fee schemes or work types.
I often carry out internal compliance ‘health checks’ for practices and I am concerned about the number of letters I see which have not been updated since the Legal Ombudsman service started in 2010. Not only is this a breach of the code of conduct, but if a client did manage to make a complaint to the ombudsman, the office would be very unlikely to waive the £400 investigation fee, even if the practice was not found to be at fault.
A sample wording for including in your letters could be as follows:
If you are unhappy about the way we dealt with your case, you can complain to the Legal Ombudsman. Complaints to the ombudsman must usually be made within six years of the end of our work for you, or within three years from when you should have realised there was a problem.
The ombudsman will expect you to give us an opportunity to deal with your complaint before you complain to the ombudsman service. We should investigate any complaint within eight weeks. If we don’t, you may complain to the ombudsman without waiting for our response. For further information, you should contact the ombudsman’s office: 0300 555 0333; PO Box 6806 Wolverhampton WV1 9WJ; email@example.com ; www.legalombudsman.org.uk.
There is some useful guidance on what should be included in ‘client care’ letters on the Law Society’s website.
SRA Code of Conduct – relevant outcomes and indicative behaviours
Fee agreements that are legal
Inform clients of regulation and protection
Limitation of liability and minimum cover
Inform clients of their right to complain and how
Provide details of the Legal Ombudsman
Dealing with complaints
Best information on likely costs
Information on the right to challenge bills
Account for financial benefits received
Information on charges, VAT and disbursements
Appropriate information on form and regulation
wording/details required on regulation
Agreeing an appropriate level of service
Explaining your and the client’s responsibilities
Name and status of the adviser and supervisor
Explain referral/fee sharing arrangements
Explaining conditions or limitations
Explaining any limitation of liability
Cost-effectiveness of action to be taken
Advising on possible changes to fees
Warning about payments/disbursements
Methods of payment
All relevant information on CFAs
Explaining implications of legal aid
Information is clear and accessible
Treatment of financial benefits
Disbursements limited to actual amounts