Complaints management is unfortunately a critical aspect of legal practice. Solicitors and law firms must navigate complaints with skill and care. It is an area that the SRA takes seriously, so understanding how to manage minor grievances and serious complaints effectively is vital for maintaining client trust, keeping the regulator at bay and ensuring you get paid.
Identifying Serious Complaints
The first step in effective complaints handling is recognising when a client’s issue is more than just a minor grumble. This distinction is crucial, as the SRA has penalised firms for neglecting serious client complaints. Failing to escalate a complaint to the Complaints Manager promptly can lead to significant consequences. Therefore, training all staff to identify and escalate serious complaints quickly is essential.
Many minor ‘grumbles’ can be addressed by a phone call or email. Reacting quickly and positively to your client’s concerns may actually result in a much improved perception of the service received.
Who Can Make a Complaint?
It’s not only clients who can raise complaints. Understanding the broader scope of who can lodge complaints and how to address them is key. This might include complaints from beneficiaries, other solicitors, regulatory bodies, the courts or even the wider public. Not all will have the right to redress, but they should certainly not be ignored.
Impact on Fee Recovery
Dealing with complaints can have a direct impact on a firm’s ability to recover fees. If a client is dissatisfied with the resolution of a complaint and escalates it to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), the firm might face challenges in recovering fees. Anybody who has had to deal with the LeO knows that the process can be a time-hog and is largely weighted on the client’s side.
The LeO route is in addition to the statutory power for a client to challenge a bill under the Solicitors Act 1974.
Firms must know when a complaint becomes a ‘circumstance’ that needs to be notified to insurers. Failure to do that could result in a lack of insurance cover, since notification is a term of professional indemnity policies.
If the client intimates a claim against the firm, or if there is a realistic possibility that the firm has been negligent, a circumstance will have to be reported. Check your PII policy for the notification requirements.
Do we have a conflict of interests?
Great care needs to be taken where a client complaint indicates that the firm is seriously at fault.
A solicitor typically has to stop acting for a client when a conflict of interest arises, especially if it’s an own-interest conflict.
Traditionally, if a solicitor made an error, they could rectify it at their own expense while continuing to serve the client, provided the client was fully informed and consented to this course of action.
However, the Howell Jones case – an agreed outcome between the firm and the SRA, which was approved by the SDT – cast some considerable doubt on that position. In the case, the firm chose to continue representing the client after admitting to a mistake in divorce settlement advice. They offered to correct the error at their own expense and provided the client with the option of seeking independent legal advice, which the client declined.
Despite the firm’s efforts to resolve the issue, and an independent counsel’s opinion that the conflict of interest had been eliminated, the SRA found that the firm’s actions had not ‘cured’ the conflict, and the firm should have ceased acting.
Although generally considered to be a poor decision, the case reveals the SRA’s thinking around this issue.
See also the SRA guidance note Putting matters right when things go wrong, and own interest conflicts.
Legal Ombudsman guidance
Solicitors should read the Legal Ombudsman’s latest guidance (An Ombudsman’s View of Good Costs Service – November 2023), which emphasises the need for clear communication and transparency on costs. It covers pre-engagement information, engagement terms, managing cost changes, and billing practices.
The guidance stresses that clients should never be surprised by bills and should be informed of any changes in costs or additional charges as soon as possible.
It also highlights the importance of keeping accurate records of all cost communications and ensuring clients have a clear understanding of the fees they will incur. This approach aims to prevent disputes and ensure fairness.
Top Tips for Avoiding Complaints
1. Clear Communication
- Regular Updates: Keep clients informed about the progress of their matters regularly. Use plain English and avoid legal jargon.
- Accessible Information: Ensure clients easily access information about their rights, the complaints process, and updates on their case. The SRA Transparency Rules set the minimum expectations for complaints information.
2. Setting Realistic Expectations
- Honest Assessment: Give an honest assessment of the case at the outset, including potential outcomes and timeframes. A solicitor’s role is not always to tell clients what they desperately want to hear.
- Managing Expectations: Regularly revisit and manage client expectations, especially if circumstances change.
3. Quality of Service
- High Standards: Uphold high standards in all aspects of legal work, including thorough research, diligent representation, and professional conduct. This impacts all aspects of running a practice, including culture, recruitment, L&D, policy and supervision.
- Feedback Loop: Implement a feedback system to learn from clients’ experiences and continually improve service quality.
4. Comprehensive Client Onboarding
- Initial Consultations: Use your first touch points to fully understand clients’ needs and concerns.
- Client Care Letters: Provide detailed client care letters outlining the scope of work, fee structure, and key contacts.
5. Proactive Problem-Solving
- Anticipate Issues: Anticipate potential issues in cases and address them before they escalate into complaints.
- Conflict Resolution Skills: Develop strong conflict resolution skills within the team to handle disputes effectively.
6. Regular Training and Compliance Updates
- Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and continuing competence: Invest in ongoing training for all staff, focusing on legal skills and client care.
- Updates on Legislation and Regulation: Keep the team updated on changes in law and regulatory requirements.
7. Efficient Case Management
- Organisational Tools: Utilise case management software and organisational tools to stay on top of deadlines and client communications.
- Delegation and Supervision: Ensure proper delegation of tasks and supervision, particularly for junior staff.
8. Building Strong Client Relationships
- Personalised Service: Offer a professional service that makes clients feel valued and understood – not just a file number.
- Trust and Rapport: Build trust and rapport with clients through empathy, understanding, and respect.
9. Transparency in Billing
- Clear Fee Structures: Be transparent about fee structures and billing practices from the start.
- Regular Billing Updates: Provide regular billing updates to avoid surprises and disputes over fees.
10. Utilising Client Feedback
- Act on Feedback: Actively seek and utilise client feedback to improve services.
- Complaints as Learning Opportunities: View complaints not just as issues to be resolved, but as opportunities for learning and improvement.