There are new calls upon the legal profession’s watchdog to accept complaints from non-clients and consumers otherwise prevented from complaining due to ‘technicalities’ out today. The Legal Services Board’s independent research unit is calling upon the Legal Ombudsman to give third parties (i.e. non-clients) a ‘right of redress’ in a new think-piece paper.
The Legal Ombudsman is currently consulting on widening the remit of its scheme to consider complaints from non-clients. Although legal services regulators do consider allegations of misconduct made by such third parties, non-clients do not have a direct right of redress when they experience poor service.
The paper by the Legal Services Consumer Panel suggests the following scenarios where there might be ‘good grounds for giving third parties a right of redress’ through the Legal Ombudsman scheme:
- Where legal work is intended to benefit consumers ‘but they are treated as third parties due to the nature of the contract or business structure’ (for example, a remortgage when the legal work is arranged by the lender);
- ‘Hounding tactics’ by lawyers acting on behalf of corporate clients;
- ‘Bad treatment’ of victims and witnesses in the criminal justice system;
- Non-contentious matters where both the client and third party lose out (e.g. a delay in a conveyancing transaction because the seller’s lawyer loses some paperwork causing detriment to the buyer’;
- Personal information compromised due to a data security breach;
- Beneficiaries when they experience problems due to a defective will; and
- Lawyers working on matters concerning groups of people where the work is arranged by another party on their behalf or in their name (e.g. leaseholders or unsecured creditors).
On a technicality
‘If you’ve experienced poor legal services and suffered detriment then you should be able to obtain a remedy,’ commented Elisabeth Davies, chair of the Legal Services Consumer Panel. ‘It’s wrong that some consumers cannot currently complain to the Legal Ombudsman due to technicalities which they don’t even know about.’ While in some situations the case for giving third parties the right to complain was ‘clear cut’, she said, in other cases ‘such as the treatment of victims and witnesses’ the arguments were ‘more finely balanced’.
From the report (Third party complaints: extending routes to redress)
‘Lawyers must act in the best interests of their client and, in our adversarial system, it is right that they do so robustly. While a third party may feel uncomfortable, or believe that an outcome is unjust, it does not necessarily follow that a lawyer has done anything wrong. The consumer redress system must avoid impairing the proper pursuit and administration of justice.’
‘However, the scheme rules under which the Legal Ombudsman currently operates are too crude as they prevent almost all third parties from bringing a complaint and so legitimate complaints are not being considered… .’
‘We are not calling for new legal rights of consumers, but simply to extend routes to redress… .’
The report cited as an example of aggressive hounding the tactics employed by civil recovery agents as exposed by Citizens Advice and in particular by JusticeGap contributor Richard Dunstan. Citizens Advice’s evidence indicated that 100,000 people in each of the last three years had received letters from law firms employed by agents demanding a substantial sum of money as ‘compensation’ for their alleged shoplifting and threatening legal action and costs. According to the report, the Solicitors Regulation Authority ‘responded by issuing guidance on solicitors’ duties when instructed to seek recovery from shoplifters.
‘At all times lawyers must act in accordance with their code of conduct and the professional principles. We suspect that extending the Legal Ombudsman’s jurisdiction to cover third party complaints would provide a useful counterweight to the overzealous pursuit of client interests, which goes beyond acceptable boundaries. Lay people may not appreciate what is expected of solicitors instructed by corporate clients and may feel bullied and intimidated, especially where getting such a letter is a rare thing and they feel the allegations are unfounded.’