Don’t give clients cause for grievance
It’s natural to worry about complaints, but if you have good procedures in place you may be able to avoid them or at least mitigate any damage caused.
Legal practices live in dread of complaints. Not only do they take time and effort to resolve, but there is the spectre of a £400 complaint-handling charge by the Legal Ombudsman and damage to your reputation. How can you stop them from happening, or at least limit the damage?
Costs remain the issue about which clients are most likely to complain. Family law, residential conveyancing, and wills and probate account for almost half the complaints dealt with by the LeO, probably because those are the areas in which most consumer transactions occur. The LeO’s office has published useful guides that deal with these areas in particular, which can be downloaded from its website.
Major causes of complaint include:
information being disclosed to a third party without the client’s consent;
•costs being excessive or cost information being deficient;
•no advice about alternative funding options;
•not being told about disbursements;
•costs that were more than the estimate but the client was not notified in advance;
•errors in the bill;
•something was charged more than once; and
•VAT was charged when it should not have been.
Complaints about fees arise because, too often, lawyers avoid talking about money or become hesitant and appear evasive. They may worry that they will give an estimate that proves unrealistic when more information is known or that a fixed fee may prove to be inappropriate. However, the practical consequences of not speaking about money are considerable.
Clients may become frustrated or confused about likely costs. Work may be started before costs are agreed, putting all fees at risk. There can be different perceptions about what is covered, causing later misunderstandings and problems with payment. If the client feels uncertain about the budget, they may feel unsure about the service they can expect, damaging the client/lawyer relationship.
Complaints arise because, too often, lawyers avoid talking about money or become hesitant and appear evasive.
In addition, many clients are reluctant to raise a problem at an early stage and if they raise it at all, it may not be until the initial concern has escalated into a much bigger issue than it needed to be. It is important to be aware of less-formal ways in which people may try to raise a problem, for example ‘I’m not happy about … ’, ‘I don’t understand why … ’, ‘I wasn’t expecting … ’, and so on. Being alert to such signs may help you sort out a problem when it is still relatively easy to do so.
If, despite your best efforts, you do receive a formal complaint, follow a reasonable process and the LeO is likely to waive its £400 fee. There are five key steps:
Start a formal complaints response process and open a complaints file.
•Make contact with the person within two days of receipt (as this is what the LeO expects).
•Investigate the complaint objectively and listen carefully.
•Communicate the outcome.
•Review and close the complaint.
Significant changes in the time limits for complaints to the LeO were introduced in February 2013. If your procedure and client care letters have not been reviewed since then, it is likely they are out of date!
The LeO can investigate complaints for up to six years from the date a problem occurred or within three years from when the person should reasonably have known about the problem. Complaints to the LeO must usually be made within six months of the lawyer’s final response to a complaint. It is important to make your final response clear, as time will run from that date. You may wish to write something like: ‘This concludes our complaints process and unless I hear from you by …, I will mark the issue as resolved and close my file.’
The LeO was in the process of applying for authorisation as an alternative dispute resolution entity and so, under Directive 2013/11/EU on consumer ADR, the time limit for complaints to it was to extend to 12 months from 9 July 2015, which was subsequently put back to 1 October 2015. However, in August 2015, the LeO withdrew its application, so the limit will remain six months while it conducts a consultation. You need to advise clients of authorised ADR schemes.1See: www.lawsociety.org.uk/support-services/advice/articles/changes-to-client-care-information-and-leo-time-limit/