Authors:Vicky Ling
Last updated:2023-11-06
Complaints – the COVID-19 effect
Marc Bloomfield
Description: Practice management
Complaints seem to be on the rise during the pandemic. How can you learn from them without exhausting your complaints lead?
Legal aid practitioners have been telling me that they are having to deal with more complaints recently. Clients are more stressed and worried about money. The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) seems to be insisting that a client seeking a transfer makes a formal complaint before it will agree. Complaints have gone up, but management resources are already under huge pressure from all the changes required by the pandemic. This could be time to look at your complaints procedures.
Regulatory and quality requirements
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Code of Conduct for Solicitors, RELs and RFLs (at paras 8.2–8.5) requires you to have a complaints procedure and inform the client about it at the time of engagement. You are required to tell the client about their right to use the Legal Ombudsman service. The ombudsman expects you to acknowledge complaints within two working days and deal with them within eight weeks (Listen, inform, respond: a guide to good complaints handling, page 4). However, neither the SRA, the LAA, Lexcel nor the SQM prescribe in detail how you should deal with complaints; that is up to you.
Who should be involved?
Complaints should always be resolved as soon as they are raised, if at all possible. Most practices have an informal stage to allow the issue to be dealt with between the client and the person with whom they first raise the issue. It does not need to be recorded as a formal complaint or be referred to the complaints lead. It is useful to share experiences at team meetings so that any lessons can be learned.
Where complaints cannot be resolved at first instance, there is a balance to be struck between an objective investigation and ownership of the complaint. Expecting the complaints lead to take over entirely at this stage can result in a lack of ownership of the problem by the team members involved. If people can just make a problem disappear by referring it to the complaints lead, they will tend to do that. Your system needs to ensure that they have an interest in reducing repeat complaints by resolving the underlying problem. Very often, this is that a client has an unrealistic expectation of what can be achieved in their case, the timescale it will take and/or what it will cost. A significant number of complaints arise because the case was not correctly risk-assessed before it was taken on. It is important to ensure that staff are trained in these areas and supervision focuses on them.
Many practices ask the team leader or departmental partner to carry out the investigation and report to the complaints lead. This also has the advantage that the person doing the investigation understands the area of law concerned. The complaints lead can then take the role of consumer champion with the client, which can make an outcome more palatable. Think Esther Rantzen rather than Sherlock Holmes.
Flexible processes
Picking up the phone can be a successful strategy. An experienced complaints handler passed on the following tips:
Listen – let the person speak.
Don’t take it personally.
Check if it’s okay to ask some questions.
Summarise the discussion.
Agree a timeframe for the response.
Follow up as agreed.
Some complaints will need investigation in forensic detail, but others will not. If a client has already transferred to another firm and seems to be making a formal complaint in order to satisfy the LAA, it may be appropriate to say you are sorry it appears the solicitor/client relationship has broken down. If the client feels they can establish a better relationship with a new firm, you would be very sorry to see them go (if true!) but you would understand.
A client who complains at 10 am that their 5 pm email from the previous day has not been answered could trigger a check as to whether the out-of-office response was turned on, and what it said, but the initial response ought to come from the fee-earner rather than the complaints lead.
Adopting a flexible approach will identify any problems that are affecting your organisation’s reputation so that you can put them right as soon as possible, while making best use of scarce management resources.