A guide for law firms regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) on how to recognise,
clarify and investigate complaints, provide a final response to complaint, and work with the Legal
Ombudsman (LeO) service.
Scope of this note
It is not unusual for most law firms to receive complaints from clients and others from time to time, complaining about their costs or the quality of the legal services they provide. However, whilst complaints are inevitable, negative outcomes are not. How a firm or individual practitioner approaches and responds to complaints about their work can make a significant difference. Ignoring a complaint, or dealing with it badly, will increase the risk of both financial loss and reputational damage, and loss of the client relationship. Handling a complaint well (even if it involves a payment) can enhance client perception of the firm’s customer service, commitment to excellence and overall integrity, preserving the client relationship and leading to repeat business or recommendations. It can also enhance the firm’s risk profile with key external stakeholders like the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), and professional indemnity insurers (PIIs).
It also examines when a complainant can escalate a complaint to the LeO and the approach that the LeO is likely to take. The note examines how factoring this into first tier complaints handling can improve overall outcomes. It focusses on first tier complaints handling and does not cover managing a complaint through the LeO investigation process in detail. The note is aimed at SRA regulated firms operating in England and Wales, but maybe of wider interest.
Complaints handling risks and benefits
Risks of poor complaints handling
Dealing with complaints can be time consuming, time pressured and frustrating for the complaints handler, and stressful or upsetting for the person who handled the legal matter under complaint. In addition, dealing with complaints can be perceived as less important than fee-earning work and thus a less effective use of time. These factors can result in complaints being dealt with in a rushed and perfunctory way, and responded to with defensiveness and a lack of detailed consideration or objectivity.
However, devoting insufficient attention, resource and objectivity to handling a complaint is a false economy which can have potentially significant consequences for the individual and firm, including:
• Increased likelihood that the complaint will be escalated to the LeO, potentially leading to:
– prolonged resolution of the complaint and significant further complaints-handling time to deal with the LeO’s investigation;
– incurring the £400 case fee, which arises as soon as the complaint is accepted for investigation by the LeO and is payable on conclusion of their investigation. This case fee is chargeable in addition to any award of compensation or costs adjustment that the LeO makes;
– potentially incurring higher financial outcomes (in compensation or adjustment of costs) than might have been achieved through good first-tier complaints handling; and
– publication of data about the complaint on the LeO website (see LeO: Ombudsman decision data). Only limited detail about each individual complaint is published, but it may be sufficient to have an adverse reputational impact, particularly if the number of decisions published against a firm name begin to mount up.
• Increased likelihood of permanently alienating the client, potentially leading to:
– loss of repeat business from that client;
– loss of the potential for that client to recommend the firm to others; and
– potential adverse PR; for example, through the client talking to other existing or potential clients about their experience or publishing adverse reviews at review websites and on social media.
Good complaints-handling procedures and practices can help to mitigate or avoid these risks and facilitate shorter resolution times, lower financial exposure and positive ongoing client relationships.
Benefits of good complaints handling
In addition to mitigating or avoiding the risks of poor complaints handling and thereby improving outcomes and reducing financial exposure (see Risks of poor complaints handling), good procedures and practices can offer the firm many benefits, including:
• Enhancing client confidence that the firm is committed to providing a good service and that any concerns clients may raise will be taken seriously, even before any concerns have arisen.
• Demonstrating to the SRA, the LeO and other regulatory and supervisory bodies that the firm is aware of its regulatory obligations and is committed to improving its service to clients.
• Enhancing the firm’s risk profile with its PII insurers by demonstrating sound risk-management practices.
• The opportunity to learn from past mistakes and prevent recurrence (for example, by highlighting any flaws in the firm’s systems or gaps in practitioners’ knowledge).
• The opportunity to improve the firm’s care and management of its staff, as complaints may highlight staff issues such as:
– training or supervision needs;
– unsustainable workloads;
– interpersonal problems (for example, bullying); or
– mental health issues.
LeO complaints trends
The LeO’s latest annual report set out that in the preceding year they had considered complaints in the following practice areas, giving the percentage for each:
Residential conveyancing: 31.3%.
Personal injury: 10.7%.
Wills and probate: 14.4%.
Family law: 9.9%.
Other areas of law: 24%.
(LeO: Annual Report and Accounts 2022/23, at page 17.) Although the LeO receives significant numbers of complaints each year, research from the Legal Services Consumer Panel 2017 (cited in London Economics: Research into the experiences and effectiveness of solicitors’ first tier complaints handling processes (October 2017), at page iii) showed that 80% of legal services clients were satisfied with the service they received.
Recognising a complaint
Recognising a complaint is not always easy, as many clients:
• Will not expressly use the word “complaint” or other obvious complaints language.
• May not put their concerns in writing.
• May not appear to intend to pursue the issue in any formal way.
Complaint format and language
The LeO defines the complaints as an oral or written expression of dissatisfaction (see LeO: Scheme Rules (1 April 2023) (LeO Scheme Rules), at paragraph 1.6). This means, for example, that a comment made in a phone call that the practitioner is tempted to dismiss as “just a passing grumble” may constitute a complaint which the firm will be expected to address through its complaints procedure, and which the client may refer onward to the LeO.
Examples of comments that may be an indicator that the client is unhappy include “I didn’t think my costs would be that much” or “I didn’t think it would take so long”. Where practitioners are not sure whether their client’s comments are expressing dissatisfaction, they should clarify:
• The client’s understanding of the position.
• Whether the client has any concerns or queries that
they want the firm to answer.
• Whether the client is satisfied with what has happened on their matter and comfortable with further steps the firm is taking.
• Whether the client would like to make a complaint (or for the firm to treat their comments as a complaint), which the firm will investigate and respond to. If the client confirms that they do want the firm to investigate and respond to their complaint, the firm should:
• Provide the client with a copy of the firm’s written client complaint procedure. For a template, see Standard document, Law firm client facing complaints procedure.
• Assure the client that their complaint will not affect the progress of their legal matter. However, the firm should not impede the client if they wish to terminate instructions at any time. Complainants are not expected to put their concerns in writing, so the firm should also be aware that an expression of dissatisfaction may be made orally, in person or on the phone, and may be presented in a formal context (for example, a case meeting) or informally (for example, while walking together to the court). All members of the business should be provided with training to ensure that they know how to recognise when a complaint is being made to them.
Who can complain
Section 2 of the LeO Scheme Rules (at page 7) sets out who can complain to the LeO (and thus the complainants that the LeO expects firms to engage with). The firm should familiarise itself with the detail of this list, which includes (in summary):
• Smaller businesses.
• Charities and other organisations.
• Personal representatives and beneficiaries.
The firm should be aware that the complainant does not have to be an established client of the firm to fall within the LeO’s scope. The LeO can also look at “pre-client” complaints (rule 2.8(e), LeO Scheme Rules). This means, for example, that if a potential client calls the firm for an appointment and does not receive a call back (because the firm does not offer the required service or does not wish to take on the work), the LeO can consider a complaint from the potential client about the lack of a call back. It is therefore prudent for the firm to:
• Have systems in place to record all incoming calls.
• Ensure that a potential client is told if the firm is unable to help with their matter.
Failure to recognise and address a complaint
If the firm fails to recognise and properly address a complaint, the client could refer the matter to the LeO and report that they have made a complaint but that the firm has not dealt with it. Under the LeO Scheme Rules (rule 6.2), the firm would then incur the case fee of £400 for not dealing with the complaint. Additionally, it may lead to the complaint data being published at the LeO website (LeO: Ombudsman decision data), where it records whether the firm’s complaint procedure was adequate.
Response and referral timescales
The firm should address any complaint and provide its final response within eight weeks of the complaint being made. The client can refer their complaint to the LeO for consideration if the firm has not resolved the client’s complaint within that eight-week period, subject to the client referring the matter within the LeO’s own timescales (rule 4.2(a), LeO Scheme Rules). However, in exceptional circumstances, the LeO may consider a complaint where:
• The complaint has not been made to the firm first.
• They consider the complaint cannot be resolved between the client and the firm directly, due to a complete breakdown in their relationship.
• The firm will not consider the complaint at first tier.
• Delay in addressing the complaint would harm the client.
The firm should ensure it has adequate resources available and procedures in place to deal with complaints promptly within the eight-week timeframe. This should include contingency planning for situations where, for example, complaints handlers are away on holiday, off on long-term sick or too busy with other work to devote the time required to deal with the complaint in an effective way. If the firm has not dealt with the complaint by the eight- week deadline, it should signpost the client’s right to refer the matter to the LeO, even if the firm still intends to respond to the complaint after the deadline. After the eight-week period, the client must refer a complaint to the LeO within one year of the complaint or from when they ought to have known they had a complaint, and within six months of conclusion of the firm’s complaints procedure. The firm should be aware that the time limit for referral to the LeO only applies if the firm has advised the client clearly of their right to approach the LeO. If that has not been included in the firm’s final response or closure letter, then the LeO has the right to accept the complaint outside of that timeframe.
Developing a complaints procedure
Rules 8.2 to 8.5 of the SRA Code of Conduct for Individuals set out the core requirements of the firm’s complaints procedure (also called a complaints policy). While the firm must have a written process, the rules allow flexibility in how to approach this.
Designating a complaints handler
Complaints should be investigated and considered as objectively as possible, and the firm should try to ensure that those who deal with a complaint are completely neutral and not involved with the legal work to which the complaint relates. This can help avoid any client perception of bias or unfairness, and can avoid the response to the complaint being coloured by the natural ill-feeling or defensiveness which can arise in any individual whose work is being criticised. This may be difficult for small firms with limited numbers of senior staff or for sole practitioners. If the firm is unable to nominate a neutral complaints handler, those dealing with complaints should take extra care to ensure that they approach the matter as objectively as they can. Alternatively, the firm may consider reciprocal arrangements with another local firm or using an outsourced provider to deal with complaints.
Whether internal or external, the firm should ensure that whoever handles complaints:
• Has a good understanding of complaints and how they should be handled.
• Has sufficient experience.
• Will maintain accurate records of the complaints process and any further steps taken in response, and will allow the SRA to inspect their records.
• Is organised and able to deal with complaints within the timescales set by the firm.
• (If external) can maintain the firm’s duty of client confidentiality.
Capacity and commitment
A complaint needs to be given sufficient time for it to be thoroughly reviewed. The underlying client matter file will need to be reviewed (potentially in full, depending on the complaint) and considered, and time will need to be spent on correspondence with the client and preparing a careful final response letter.
If the matter is later referred to the LeO (as sometimes happens despite good first-tier complaints handling), time will need to be devoted to answering the LeO’s requests for information and documents, which can be extensive and often with short deadlines. The firm should therefore designate a complaints handler who has:
• The time capacity to devote to the work.
• Commitment to dealing with complaints as
thoroughly and objectively as possible. If the firm is not able to designate a non-fee-earning team or member of staff for this work, it should consider how best to ensure fee-earning staff have capacity to properly attend to complaints (for example, by adjusting billing or time-recording targets to allow for this). The firm should always have a named person who the client can contact about concerns. The firm could also consider ways to incentivise good complaints handling (for example, by including this within staff appraisal criteria).
Designing the procedure
Points to consider when reviewing or designing a good complaints procedure include:
• Usability. If a matter is referred to them, the LeO will consider whether the firm’s complaints policy has been user-friendly and easy for the client to navigate. If the firm’s policy does not meet the required standard, the firm is likely to be criticised by the LeO and may be directed to pay additional compensation to the client for poor complaints handling. The firm should therefore consider the complaints procedure from a client’s perspective and make any adjustments to:
– make it more simple and easy to use (rule 8.6, SRA Code of Conduct for Individuals); and – make provision for any client vulnerability or special needs (rule 3.3, LeO Scheme Rules).
• File-holder first. Complaints can sometimes be about simple issues or interpersonal misunderstandings, which can be easy to resolve if addressed quickly. If they have not already done so, encourage the client to discuss their concerns with the person who is dealing with their matter first. This may not be appropriate where the relationship has broken down or where the client feels uncomfortable, so it should not be a formal requirement that the client do this.
• Named contact. It is best practice to provide the name and contact details of a specified individual in the complaints procedure so the client knows who to contact when they have concerns.
• Expectations. The written procedure should manage client expectations of both the complaints process and the legal services the firm provides. Ensure that clients are aware that the firm’s service does not have to be perfect but should deliver a reasonable level of service.
• Free process. The procedure should make it clear to clients that the firm will not charge for dealing with complaints (rule 3.3, LeO Scheme Rules).
• Simplicity. The firm should avoid designing a policy with too many steps to follow. This can lead to confusion and duplication of work, particularly if too many people would be involved.
• Clarity. The complaints procedure should set out what the firm will do so that clients understand how their concerns will be dealt with. It can be helpful to set this out in clear steps that can be referred to later if updating the client on progress. For example, the procedure should explain that the complaint will be acknowledged, investigated and a formal response provided.
• Timescale. The LeO Scheme Rules allow the firm eight weeks to respond to the complaint. However, clients perceive this as a very long time, and it can help to set out to the client what will happen when.
Use the eight-week timeframe, however, as it allows for flexibility to set aside time to deal with matters, particularly when you have ongoing work.
• Information. Ensure that the client is provided with accurate and up-to-date information about:
– how they can raise any professional conduct concerns with the SRA; and
– how and when they can refer their complaint to the LeO, including the LeO’s full contact details
(Rule 3.2, LeO Scheme Rules.)
If the firm has a designated individual or team who will handle complaints, it is best practice to have clear internal procedures for complaints to be notified to them. One approach is to have an internal form which will provide the complaints handlers with key information at a glance. This will bring them up to speed and give them an overview of the complaint quickly, and may also assist in identifying whether the complaint raises any regulatory or professional indemnity matters. For a template, see Standard document, Internal claims and complaints notification form for law firms.
Handling a complaint in practice
The firm should acknowledge the complaint as the first step so the client knows their complaint has been
received. Formal acknowledgment can provide the client with confirmation and reassurance if they have made the complaint verbally and this is to be passed to another member of the team to deal with. It can be helpful to include an acknowledgment and thank you for the effort that the client has taken to make the complaint. Making a complaint to a law firm can be a daunting prospect. Clients sometimes feel that the complaint will not be dealt with fairly or that it will simply be ignored. Acknowledging and thanking the client for raising their concerns will give them confidence that the complaint is being taken seriously and dispel any concerns that it will be met with ill- feeling and defensiveness. This can help set a positive tone for the rest of the complaints procedure. It is good practice to include an explanation that the firm will contact the client again if it needs any further information or clarification about their complaint in order to proceed (see Clarification of complaint, needs and expectations).
Clarification of complaint, needs and expectations
Why and when to seek further information
To avoid wasting valuable time and effort, annoying the client and prolonging or exacerbating the
complaint, it is important to ensure the firm has an accurate understanding of the client’s concerns, needs and expectations. Taking time to clarify and confirm the issues with the client can enable the firm to focus and streamline its complaints-handling efforts and will also generate goodwill by further reassuring the client that their concerns are being taken seriously and treated with respect. Where the complaint is brief and clear, it may be possible to encompass this within the acknowledgement (see Acknowledgement). However, if the complaint is lengthy, includes many heads of complaint, or requires further information to become clear, the firm may wish to seek clarification separately, after the acknowledgment.
Clarify the client’s needs
Rule 3.4 of the SRA Code of Conduct for Individuals requires practitioners to take account of their clients’ attributes, needs and circumstances, and rule 8.6 requires practitioners to provide information to clients in a way that they can understand. In line with these rules, the firm may need to ask the client if they would like the firm to make any adjustments to help them engage with the complaints process (for example, whether they need someone to communicate with the firm on their behalf or to receive communications in a particular format). If the complaint is being dealt with by the person who handled the underlying legal matter, they may already be aware of any particular needs. However, this information may not have reached a separate complaints handler (or may not do so until they review the file), so it may be necessary to check with the client at the outset. For guidance on considering the client’s vulnerabilities and needs, see Checklist, Client onboarding: Assessing client vulnerability, needs and requirements.
Clarify the complaint
To ensure the firm accurately understands the nature of the complaint (and to avoid spending time investigating and responding to the wrong points), it is best practice to provide the client with a summary of the complaint and ask the client to confirm or correct it. The firm should also ask questions or seek further information on any aspects that are unclear and invite the client to provide any further information that they consider helpful. In addition to avoiding misunderstandings, actively engaging with and listening to the client in this way can bring the following benefits:
• Involving the client and giving them confidence in the complaints process.
• Promoting a sense of goodwill, respect and co- operation between the client and the complaints handler, which may help smooth the remainder of the complaints process.
• Depending on the circumstances, offering the opportunity to narrow the heads of complaint to try and focus in on the crux of the client’s concerns. The firm may wish to carry out this step in writing, or by speaking with the client on the phone or in person. Speaking with the client can be significantly quicker and allows the opportunity to adapt the approach as the conversation progresses (for example, by asking further questions in response to what the client says). The firm should make an accurate and full written record of any conversations and it is best practice to either send a copy to the client or summarise the detail in a confirmatory letter or email.
Ascertain the client’s expectations
Finding out the client’s expectations for the complaints procedure and its outcome will inform the complaints handler’s approach to the process and final decision. The firm may therefore wish to ask the client how they would like their complaint to be resolved. Best practice is to ask this as an open question, without leading their response in any way. A common conception is that complainants just want money, or to not have to pay their costs but, for example, some clients seek only a sincere apology and to know that the firm will take steps to prevent recurrence. Whatever the client says, good practice is for the complaints handler to say they will consider the client’s wishes if, after investigation, they find the service has fallen below the reasonable standard that the firm is expected to provide. This is also an opportunity to manage the client’s expectations about the procedure itself, to correct any misconceptions and ensure they know what will happen and when. Ensure they have a copy of the firm’s written complaint procedure which sets out the process and timescales. They may have been provided with this as part of their engagement paperwork, but it is good practice to provide another copy at the point of complaint. It can be helpful to also summarise the process (for example, explaining that once the complaints handler has had an opportunity to review the file and speak with those involved, the firm will provide a detailed response).
Consider making an apology
The firm may wish to consider apologising to the client, even at the outset of the complaints process and before the outcome is known. This can help to take the heat out of any anger and reassure the client that the firm is taking their concerns seriously. The LeO has commented that they do not look favourably on what they consider to be empty apologies, which apologise for the client’s feeling rather than the firm’s conduct, so the firm should avoid this in the final response (see Final response letter). However, in the context of the beginning of the complaints investigation, an apology that the client is dissatisfied with the service and has felt the need to make a complaint can be helpful It is important to avoid an apology which agrees with the complaint before the firm has investigated and reached a considered view of the matter. This is particularly important where the complaint may involve allegations of professional negligence or other matters that may need to be notified to the firm’s professional indemnity insurers. This is because a substantive apology may amount to an admission of liability which, if made without the approval of the firm’s insurers, may prejudice insurance cover for any future claim. For guidance on analysing whether the complaint should be notified to professional indemnity insurers, see Practice note, Triaging professional negligence claims, complaints and conduct allegations. For information about policy coverage problems, see Practice note, Law firm professional indemnity insurance: coverage issues and disputes with insurers.
Analysing the substantive complaint
Investigating the complaint
Those investigating the substantive complaint should make their own objective enquiries into the matter and reach their own objective conclusions about what happened and the merit of the complaint.
It can be tempting (for example, to save time by leveraging the fee-earner’s knowledge of the file) to simply ask the fee earner whose work is the subject of the complaint for their views, or even to ask them to make a first draft of the complaint response. However, human nature means that the fee-earner’s view is subjective and may be coloured by defensiveness or ill feeling toward the client, often manifesting as criticism of the client. Additionally, perhaps concerned about spending time on a non-chargeable matter, the fee earner may rely on their knowledge and recollection of the matter, rather than reviewing the file itself, leading to inaccuracy. While it can be important to speak with the fee earner, those investigating the complaint should make sure they review the file objectively themselves. This will help form a clear view of what has happened and whether there are any gaps in the file or other indicators of a lapse in service standard.
Whether the file is hard copy or electronic, investigators will need to review a complete file. This means they may need to work with the fee earner to ensure that all relevant material has been filed before their review (for example, ensuring that any manuscript attendance notes have been scanned to the electronic file and all emails have been filed appropriately). This will also assist with efficiently responding to any document or information requests from the LeO later on, if the matter is referred to them. It is best practice to review the file for the whole of the engagement where practicable, not just the time period or issue complained about. This will put the complaint into context and may reveal surrounding information which helps with analysis of the complaint.
Considering the standard of service
Considering the standard of service
Once the investigator has gained a clear view of what happened on the client matter, they will be in a good position to consider the complaint itself and the standard of service provided. Questions to consider include:
• What were the client’s expectations of the standard of service? Did their expectations originate from something the firm said (for example, any service levels described in the engagement paperwork or discussed with the fee earner)? Did the fee earner address any unreasonable expectations at the outset?
• Against the backdrop of the client’s expectations, was the standard of service reasonable? Factors that may be relevant to considering reasonable service include:
Client sophistication. Is the client an experienced user of legal services? Are they experienced in this
type of transaction?
An experienced client will usually be considered to know what level of service it is reasonable to expect. An inexperienced client will generally need more support and guidance about service levels. Similarly, where the client was experiencing vulnerability at the material time, a reasonable level of service might involve, for example, providing them with more support or guidance about procedure or clearer communications.
– Retainer and costs issues. Was the engagement for the whole matter (that is, for all of the legal work involved) or for unbundled services, and on what costs or charging basis? Did the agreed terms change later in the engagement?
The scope of the client’s instructions, or instructions on costs, may have a bearing on reasonable service. For example, if the fee earner was instructed to minimise costs wherever possible, this might explain why they provided less frequent or briefer updates.
– Time sensitivity. If the client’s matter, or an aspect of it, was urgent or time critical (for example, involving deadlines), one would expect the matter to be handled proactively, with shorter correspondence turnaround times
Client updates. Was the client kept informed about the matter? Were updates provided at regular intervals or milestones, promptly on request, and in accordance with any terms in the engagement
For example, if the client has had to chase for updates, and if updates were not promptly provided, this is likely to fall below a reasonable standard of service. On the other hand, if the client calls every day for an update, unless the matter is fast paced and time critical, a reasonable standard of service would not require the fee earner to promptly return every call. It may be sufficient to provide a weekly update. However, where a client demonstrates unreasonable expectations in this way, the fee earner should try to address this (for example, by explaining the cost-benefit impact of daily calls when there is little progress and agreeing when updates will be provided).
It is important to remember that the service provided does not have to have been flawless and perfect. There may be some matters that, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, could have been better handled (and which the firm may wish to recognise in the final response to the complaint). However, the service should have been reasonable overall.
Finding reasonable service
Where the investigator concludes that the service provided was reasonable (such that the complaint is not upheld), it is best practice to:
• Explain this to the client, setting out the information and findings upon which the conclusion is based. This can include, for example, reference to actions taken on the file which help to illustrate why the service was of a reasonable level.
• Give the client the opportunity to provide further comments or information in response, if they wish. The firm may have built this step in to the complaints procedure, or it can be offered at this stage.
• Objectively consider any further information or comments provided by the client and respond to them appropriately. Try to remain open-minded and resist any tendency to dismiss any challenge to the previous conclusion. If the investigator needs to make any further enquiries before they can respond to the new information, they should inform the client and provide an indication of when the client can expect the response. Once the investigator has reached a final conclusion on the merits of the complaint (which may be after considering further information from the client) and there is nothing further to consider, the investigator should let the client know and provide a final response to the complaint (see Final response letter).
Finding poor service
It is human nature to make mistakes sometimes and almost all firms will find incidences of poor service from time to time.
Consider notification to PII or SRA
If the investigators conclude that there has been poor service, the firm should first consider whether the poor service includes any potential misconduct or professional negligence that the firm should notify to:
• The SRA, under rules 7.7 and 7.8 of the SRA Code of Conduct for Individuals.
• The firm’s PII insurers under the terms of the firm’s policy.
For guidance on ascertaining whether a matter needs to be notified to the SRA or PII insurers, and what to do in what order if it does, see Practice note, Triaging professional negligence claims, complaints and conduct allegations.
Usually, any report to the SRA can be dealt with in parallel to the complaints procedure. However, to avoid prejudicing insurance cover for any subsequent claim, the firm should notify any professional negligence concerns to their insurers as soon as practicable. This should be before the outcome of the complaints investigation is communicated to the client, in case the firm needs insurer approval for its proposed response and any offer in resolution of the complaint.
Communicating poor service findings
When the investigation has found poor service, subject to any input from the firm’s PII insurers, it is best practice to:
• Recognise the poor service and explain the basis for the finding to the client. Although some explanation may be helpful, the firm should avoid trying to justify why the poor service occurred, as this risks infuriating the client and giving the impression that the firm is being disingenuous or trying to play down the impact.
If the client has made several complaints, but only some of them are justified, this will need to be explained clearly and in full, distinguishing between what is and is not considered a reasonable level of service.
• Apologise (subject to insurer approval). A genuine apology often goes a long way with complainants and is sometimes the only remedy needed to resolve the matter. An apology conveys that the firm has genuinely listened to the client and recognises and regrets its shortcomings (see Consider making an apology).
• Offer an appropriate remedy (see Considering an offer).
Considering an offer
If the investigation has found poor service, the firm should consider offering the client an appropriate remedy. The client may well have a fixed idea of the remedy they want to resolve the complaint (for example, a full refund of fees). However, the firm will need to determine what, if any, remedy is reasonable in the circumstances.
Impact of poor service
The firm will need to consider what impact the poor service has had on the client, which can differ from client to client, even for similar service failings. Most clients instruct solicitors during some of the most stressful and upsetting events in their lives and it can be difficult to differentiate between the stress inherent in their legal matter and any stress caused by the poor service.
Factors which may affect the impact on the client include whether the poor service has caused:
• Any financial loss, detriment or risk to the client. This could include, for example, where costs have significantly exceeded the estimate given, without the client having been informed.
• Any delay in their matter progressing.
• Any inconvenience to the client (for example, through their having to chase repeatedly for updates or repeat instructions or information, when they should not have had to do so).
The firm should also consider the severity of any impact, which will inform the nature and value of any remedy offered.
Nature and value of remedy
The firm may consider that, while the poor service has had an impact, this is sufficiently minor that no substantive remedy is needed. In this case, an apology may be sufficient to satisfy the client and, in many cases, the LeO will support this approach. However, any apology should be genuinely worded and include an uncombative explanation of why the firm considers the apology a sufficient resolution of the complaint.
Where the poor service has had a more substantial impact on the client or their matter, the firm should consider whether an offer of financial compensation is appropriate. This may be offered on its own or alongside other remedies. In gauging the level of compensation to offer, the firm may wish to consider the approach that the LeO might take to the complaint. As well as being a useful guide to what might be an appropriate offer, considering the LeO guidance can increase the likelihood that the LeO will consider the firm’s offer to be reasonable, if the matter is referred to them. If a firm has made a reasonable offer, the LeO can dismiss the complaint if the offer has already been accepted or is still open for acceptance (see Dismissing a complaint). Dismissal would mean the firm would not have to deal with a LeO investigation into the complaint, saving the firm the time and money of doing so. The majority of compensation awards made by the LeO are £250 or less. However, each case is considered individually. The LeO publish guidance on their approach, including a table of potential awards and the factors that affect their decision (see LeO: Guidance: Our approach to putting things right (December 2020)).
If the poor service relates to inadequate costs information or exceeding cost estimates (the most common heads of complaint), the firm may need to consider offering a costs adjustment. This may be a bill reduction or reimbursement of costs already paid. In considering costs adjustments to resolve cost
complaints, the firm should consider:
• Whether the poor service constitutes a breach of rules 8.6 or 8.7 of the SRA Code of Conduct for Individuals which requires notification to the SRA (see Consider notification to PII or SRA). Offering an appropriate cost adjustment to remedy the breaches may have the additional benefit of improving the outcome of any later investigation into the matter by the SRA.
• The approach that the LeO might take to the matter. The LeO is able to make unlimited adjustment to costs (see Making an award).
The firm should have an open mind about the resolution of the complaint and not assume that a financial payment is the only option. Many clients will be expecting a payment or will be satisfied by one, even if they were not expecting it. However, the firm should be open to the client’s feelings and objectives, and consider whether another outcome may be more appropriate or better received. For example, the client may be receptive to an offer to do additional legal work at no further cost or for the firm to assist them in some other way.
When communicating an offer, the firm should explain clearly which aspects of the complaint the offer relates to. For example, if there are a number of heads of complaint and only one is being upheld, the offer should explain that it is in relation to the valid complaint, setting out the reasons for the amount.
It is good practice to avoid a blanket offer of a lump sum, with no explanation of the amount or how it relates to the heads of complaint, as the LeO can sometimes take this as an indication that you have not considered the matter carefully or addressed the poor service adequately.
Final response letter
Once the complaints procedure is concluded and the firm has determined the outcome, it will need to confirm this to the client and signpost their right to refer the matter to the LeO in the final response letter.
It is crucial that the final response letter sets out that the client can:
• Complain to the LeO.
• The timeframe for complaining to the LeO.
• The LeO’s full contact details.
This information must be included in the final response letter:
• Prominently and clearly.
• Even if the client has already been given it on previous occasions (for example, in their engagement paperwork and at the outset of the complaints process).
• Even if the firm has made an offer in resolution of the complaint and this has been accepted. In practice, the LeO would be likely to dismiss the complaint in these circumstances (rule 5.7(c), LeO Scheme Rules), but the firm could still face criticism for failing to signpost the LeO.
It can seem counterintuitive to flag this information at the end of the complaints process, especially if the complaint appears to have been resolved, and can feel like actively encouraging the client to make a complaint to the LeO. However, including these details in the letter is required by rule 3.2(c) of the LeO Scheme Rules. If the final response does not clearly set out this information, the time limit for the client to refer the matter to the LeO will not start to run (rule 4.4, LeO Scheme Rules), leaving the complaint and the risk of LeO involvement hanging over the firm.
Use plain language and avoid using legal jargon where possible. If a specialist legal term or phrase cannot be avoided, the letter should explain what it means in simple, clear terms. For example, “disbursement” can be explained as any expense or payment that the firm has had to make on the client’s behalf. Use clear and simple formatting. Aim for short paragraphs and use headings to break up large blocks of text and make the letter easier to navigate. The letter should not be “dumbed down” but should be clear, unambiguous and user-friendly. Use of what is often called “legalese” can be perceived as trying to confuse the client and hide the truth. Drafting for clarity demonstrates respect and openness, which will be appreciated by even sophisticated clients.
• Try to expressly address each point that the client has made. It may be appropriate to group points about the same issue together and respond to them as one, but it should be clear which points are being addressed. Make sure to address each head of complaint individually, whether it is being upheld or not. Taking the time to do this will show that the firm has listened to the complaint, taken it seriously and considered it in detail. This is not only good complaints handling but is itself an aspect of good client service. It can improve the client’s receptivity to the firm’s response and any resolution offered, and improve the likelihood that the client relationship will survive (and potentially thrive) beyond the complaint. It will also improve how the LeO views the firm’s complaints process and investigation, if the matter is referred to them in future.
• Avoid defensive or combative language, even where the firm has concluded that the complaint is unjustified, or even capricious. Avoid direct or aggressive criticism of the client and try to describe any relevant client conduct in a neutral tone. If the client’s complaint arises from a misunderstanding on
their part, correct the misunderstanding simply and without criticism or condescension.
• If appropriate, explain that the investigators have provided feedback or training to the fee earners involved, or have amended the firm’s systems, to prevent recurrence of the issue complained of, and assure the client that there will be improvements in the future. This can be a powerful message, as one of the reasons many clients give for raising their complaint is concern that other clients will not have the same experience in future. This may also encourage the client to use the firm again themselves.
• Set out any offer or other proposals clearly, in a clearly headed section, including:
– The amount (or other resolution) offered for each issue or head of complaint, and how this has been arrived at.
– The total offer, if several amounts have been offered.
– Clear calculations of any factors affecting the figures, such as VAT or offsetting any money owed or on account.
– How the firm proposes to deliver payment or performance (for example, if remedial work is needed) and the timeframe for doing so. Examples of delivery mechanisms might be payment by bank transfer, credit against an outstanding invoice, or further work at no further cost. Examples of timeframe might be payment within 14 days, or further work to be completed within six weeks.
• The final response letter should set out how the client should communicate their acceptance of the offer or any further comments in response (for example, if the offer is rejected) and give a timeframe for doing so.
• Be certain to include that the client can complaint to the LeO, the timeframe for doing so, and the LeO’s full contact details (see Signposting LeO).
Complaints offer insight into where there might be problems in areas of the firm’s practice, or where there may be other issues that, if left unaddressed, may escalate and cause more serious risks. For example, a spate of complaints about a particular individual may indicate a training need (particularly if the complaints are about the same issue), or may suggest a resourcing or pastoral issue, if the individual has too heavy a workload or personal problems and is in need of support. Learning from these insights will help the firm improve its overall compliance, as well as the service the firm delivers to its clients, reducing the incidence of complaints and other risks in future, and improving the firm’s risk profile with stakeholders like the SRA, the firm’s PII insurers and the LeO. For guidance on identifying and assessing areas of potential complaints or claims risk in the firm’s practice, see Practice note, Identifying and managing negligence risk within a law firm. For information about common problems and how to avoid them, see Practice note, Common causes of claim and complaint, avoidance and preventing recurrence and Checklist, Preventing negligence claims and service complaints: tips for law firms.
The LeO has also published a guide to preventing complaints (see, LeO: Preventing complaints).
Assessing first-tier complaints handling
If a complaint is referred to the LeO, as part of its triage of the matter and consideration of whether it is appropriate for LeO investigation, it will consider whether the firm handled the complaint appropriately at first tier. This will include considering whether the firm:
• Provided a full response to the complaint within the eight-week timescale. The LeO may award some small compensation for poor complaints handling if the
response was provided after the eight-week deadline, even if the client was kept updated.
• Communicated with the client in a respectful, open and accessible way.
• Provided a response to all the concerns raised and addressed any findings of poor service.
• Offered an appropriate remedy for any poor service.
• Signposted the client to the LeO.
Depending on its assessment of the first-tier complaint handling and the substantive complaint itself, the LeO may exercise various powers. It may:
• Investigate the complaint to conclusion.
• Refer it elsewhere.
• Dismiss a complaint.
• Discontinue its investigation on a range of grounds. For further information on the LeO’s approach to first tier complaints handling, see Video and audio, Legal Ombudsman: navigating the law firm complaints process and LeO: Best practice complaint handling guide.
Dismissing a complain
The grounds on which the LeO may dismiss a complaint are set out in full in rule 5.7 of the LeO Scheme Rules, and include:
• The complainant has not suffered any significant detriment, or the complaint otherwise has no reasonable prospects of success.
• The complaint is repetitive and the LeO or another independent court or complaints scheme has already addressed it or is in progress.
• The complaint is frivolous, vexatious or disproportionate, the client has unduly delayed in raising it, or too much time has passed since the events such that investigation would not be practicable.
The issue is better dealt with by another body (for example, the court).
• The firm has already offered adequate redress for the complaint, which has either been accepted or (if refused) remains open for acceptance.
The LeO may also refer the complaint onward to the court or another complaint scheme under rules 5.8 to 5.14 of the LeO Scheme Rules.
Making an award
If the LeO does address the complaint, it may recommend a range of remedies, including directing the firm to:
• Apologise to the client.
• Pay a specified amount in compensation for any loss to the client caused by the poor service.
• Pay compensation for distress or inconvenience to the client caused by the poor service.
• Pay interest on any financial award.
• Put right any error made and pay for the cost of that rectification.
• Take, and pay for, specified action in the interests of the complainant.
• Pay a specified amount for costs incurred by the complainant incurred in pursuing the complaint.
• Reduce or limit the fees that the firm charged to the client (whether paid or outstanding) for the underlying legal matter. (Rules 5.36-5.45, LeO Scheme Rules)
If the LeO investigates the client’s complaint and makes an award, this will be in addition to directing the firm to pay the case fee (currently £400). The LeO has the ability to waive the £400 fee where: The LeO dismisses or discontinues the complaint (see Dismissing a complaint). The complaint is abandoned or withdrawn. A reasonable offer has been made by the firm. The firm took all reasonable steps to resolve the complaint at first tier, in line with their complaints procedure. The LeO does not uphold the complaint and concludes the case in the firm’s favour. To achieve the best possible outcome for the firm, both at first tier and through the LeO, it is therefore crucial that the firm has the procedures in place, and takes the time, to deal with a complaint adequately and to acknowledge and address any findings of poor service.
For further information about the LeO’s overall approach to complaints, see the following resources:
• Video, Legal Ombudsman: new Scheme Rules for handling complaints
• LeO: The LeO process
• LeO: Our approach to investigations
It also examines when a complainant can escalate a complaint to the LeO and the approach that the LeO is likely to take. The note examines how factoring this into first tier complaints handling can improve overall outcomes. It focusses on first tier complaints handling and does not cover managing a complaint through the LeO investigation process in detail.The note is aimed at SRA regulated firms operating in England and Wales, but maybe of wider interest.