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Leo's "name and shame": The right approach?

27 November 2012. Published by Sally Lord, Knowledge Lawyer

The Legal Ombudsman (LEO) was established by the Office for Legal Complaints under the Legal Services Act 2007 to try and simplify the system and make sure consumers have access to an independent expert to resolve complaints.

Every three months, LEO is now going to publish a list of names of lawyers or law firms involved in complaints which have led to a formal decision by an Ombudsman. This list includes: the number of Ombudsman decisions in respect of each firm featured; the area of law; the date of the decision; the nature of the remedy awarded; and the reason for the complaint.

Adam Sampson, Chief Legal Ombudsman, has said that by publishing this information will "give objective information about the way the market is operating" and promote consumer interest and transparency and encourage high standards within the legal profession. However, these publications have caused much controversy amongst the legal profession.

As a consumer, wouldn't you want to know if your solicitor has had a number of complaints against them? With so many lawyers to choose from, surely a list which tells you which firms or solicitors that have had complaints made against them will help consumers decide who not to instruct when they want legal advice? But would anyone making a decision such as this actually base it on data from a website and if not, why wouldn't it be a good idea to do so?

The Law Society has recently said it considers that this information could be potentially misleading to consumers, but are they correct? For example, if one of the firms listed has had a high number of complaints made against them, what does this mean? The firm in question may handle thousands of cases a year and, although on the face of it, it may look like many clients have complained, in fact, those figures could represent an extremely small minority of clients. On the other hand, it may be a small firm where over half of its clients have complained. In the latter case, a consumer would do well to steer clear!

Another potentially grey area is where there are no complaints listed for a particular firm. This could mean that the firm has not had any complaints made against them. However, LEO only keeps the information on its website for up to one year and therefore it could also mean that the firm has not had any claims within that period. In addition, LEO operates a policy of only publishing closed complaints, so it could mean that the firm has had hundreds of complaints, but has settled them informally so they do not appear on the website, or there are a number of complaints outstanding.

Both these examples clearly show that the data on LEO's website could be interpreted in a number of ways. As Andrew Hopper QC points out in his recent article for the Legal Ombudsman News, "If publicity is to occur, it must be valuable, informative and not misleading; it must not cause unnecessary or avoidable prejudice". Read here.

Mr Hopper also adds that he thinks LEO needs to keep their policy under close review and refine its policies if needed. However, the fact that LEO is welcoming criticism from a third party and publishing their views on its website, seems to indicate that 'refinements' to its policies may occur if required in the interests of consumers.

A wise consumer should always research the firm they intend to instruct, particularly if the information published by LEO gives any cause for concern. However, perhaps further information which will help a consumer put the data into context will be added in the future, such as the size of the firms and the number of new instructions/cases it deals with a year. Although some firms already put this on their websites, if a consumer has to trawl through page after page trying to find it, they may give up and look for a different firm.

We will have to wait and see whether or not publishing the list has any effect on new instructions a "listed" firm receives.

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