SLCC analyses Law Society’s treatment of complaints about solicitors

slcc2The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) has published an analysis of trends in the Law Society of Scotland’s handling of complaints about solicitors’ conduct from 2009 to 2014.

Under the Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act 2007, the SLCC is the single gateway for complaints about solicitors and other legal practitioners in Scotland.

Complaints about conduct are then referred to the professional bodies to investigate. In addition to investigating complaints about inadequate service by solicitors and firms, the SLCC has a role in investigating “handling complaints” – complaints about the professional bodies’ investigations – and in monitoring trends in complaints.

The report, Conduct complaints about Scottish solicitors: Trend analysis report, draws attention to trends in:

the numbers of conduct complaints;

the timescales involved in investigations; and

complaint outcomes.

It also covers the two different outcomes available to the Law Society of Scotland’s professional conduct committees when they uphold a conduct complaint: “unsatisfactory professional conduct” and “potential professional misconduct”.

The report reveals that although conduct complaint numbers and timescales are generally decreasing, on average, hybrid complaints – those which incorporate elements of both conduct and inadequate service – take 2 years to be dealt with.

This increases to 3 years if a prosecution against the solicitor for professional misconduct is then raised at the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal.

Whilst the number of decisions being made by the Law Society of Scotland and the number of complaints upheld is steadily increasing, the level of compensation, fines and training orders remains low.

Compensation, fines and training orders are all available as sanctions when the Law Society of Scotland committees uphold a complaint as unsatisfactory professional conduct.

Although there is a tariff and written guidance relating to compensation, no guidance exists for levels of fines.

Neither the compensation guidance nor the unsatisfactory professional conduct decisions are made available to the public.

If the complaint is upheld by a committee as potentially being professional misconduct, the Law Society of Scotland appoints a fiscal (usually a solicitor) to prosecute the solicitor named in the complaint at the Scottish Solicitors Discipline Tribunal.

In at least 13 instances, the fiscal referred the complaint back to the committee for the decision to be reconsidered. We question whether it is right that the Law Society of Scotland committee subsequently revisits its decision – based on the advice of one individual, the fiscal.

The SLCC recommends that the Law Society of Scotland:-

Considers fast-tracking certain types of complaints.

Continues to work with the SLCC to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of complaint handling, particularly in relation to hybrid complaints.

Reviews the consistency of sanction awards.

Revises and publishes written guidance and/or a tariff for unsatisfactory professional conduct sanctions.

Considers publishing information in relation to unsatisfactory professional conduct decisions.

Reviews the involvement of the fiscal in the determination process and remitting complaints back for secondary decisions.

The report follows a previous report on trends in service complaints.

lawsocIn response to the report, Carole Ford, non-solicitor convener of the Law Society of Scotland regulatory committee, said: “The report provides a useful analysis of the trends for conduct complaints and hybrid complaints which involve both conduct and service issues and therefore are investigated by both the Law Society and Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC). “It shows that while the overall number of complaints has dropped, from 255 conduct complaints in 2012 to 174 in 2014, more complaints are being upheld. “The report indicates that the average time taken to investigate conduct complaints has been reduced from 36 to 30 weeks, although of course the complexity of individual complaints can vary enormously.

“This is reflected in the time taken to investigate them. Hybrid complaints, involving both conduct and service issues, take substantially longer to complete as both organisations have to carry out their own investigations.

“The data suggests that both the SLCC and the Law Society require a very similar length of time to investigate their respective parts of the complaint. We will work with the SLCC to ensure that these complaints are dealt with as efficiently as possible. “The SLCC has made a number of recommendations which we will now consider more fully. This will include items such as the provision of guidance and information about unsatisfactory conduct, sanction awards and the role of the Law Society fiscal appointed to prosecute solicitors before the Scottish Solicitors’ Discipline Tribunal. “People rely on solicitors to do a good job for them and, in the vast majority of cases, clients are happy with the advice and the level of service they receive.

“However when things do go wrong, it is important that members of the public can be confident that the legal complaints system in Scotland is robust and fair to both complainer and solicitor, and that the right outcome can be reached. “We will continue to work with the SLCC to make improvements within both organisations to make sure that complaints are handled effectively and efficiently.”

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