Client Care and Complaints Handling
These procedures and are in accordance with the Code of Conduct and any relevant Law Society Practice Notes on Complaints. Our procedures for dealing with complaints are intended, whenever practicable, to speedily resolve any causes of concern or dissatisfaction as soon as they arise, thereby avoiding formal reference to the Legal Ombudsman, which is costly and time-consuming. By responding to complaints in a fair and professional manner, we may also succeed in preserving a reasonable client’s goodwill and favourable opinion of the Firm. Unfavourable opinions tend to be much repeated, and can undermine the reputation of any practice and the profession as a whole. This is not to say that complaints are always well-founded, or that we must per se acquiesce to a client’s demands; simply that we must respond in a sympathetic and professional manner to expressions of concern, act speedily to investigate the facts appertaining to those concerns and, where they are substantiated to any degree, offer appropriate redress or compensation to resolve the situation.
This procedure aims to ensure that:-
- the client receives a prompt acknowledgement and response to expressions of concern;
- as with any other aspect of a client’s affairs, the fact of a complaint is subject to the ordinary rules of confidentiality and disclosure;
- further, the client feels that we are dealing with their concerns in a professional and objective manner, and that they are taken seriously;
- the issues raised are properly investigated;
- we report fairly on the outcome of those investigations within a reasonable and stated period of time, and update them as to progress when investigations are more complex;
- we act with integrity when those concerns are substantiated to any degree and admit what has gone wrong;
- we offer fair and appropriate solutions and redress.
The published copy of our Complaints Procedures (App 2A) is available to all clients upon request, and should be sent to them in any event where they have complained.
The incidence of complaints can be minimised in the first place by adhering to the case management procedures, particularly with regard to:-
- confirmation of a client’s instructions in strict accordance therewith and the current Client Care tenplate;
- reasonable assessment of the client’s likely chances of success or of achieving their desired outcome;
- the issue of current terms of retainer;
- adequately discussing and agreeing cost estimates;
- the issue of accurate interim bills and costs updates;
- the regular issue of progress reports in lengthier matters;
- confirming all prescribed matters to clients in writing, including any anticipated delays and the reasons for them;
- undertaking all steps which have been promised, or otherwise follow instructions;
- confirming material advice in writing;
- replying to telephone calls and correspondence within periods stated in our Client Care Standards;
- strict adherence to SARS.
Situations regarded as presumptive of poor service (and which frequently give rise to awards of compensation) include:
- lack of client care information;
- unreasonable delay in billing or making mistakes on bills or accounts which cause serious inconvenience to the client;
- failure to give written costs or ongoing costs information;
- failure to explain the risks of litigation and failure to carry out a ‘cost-benefit and risk’ analysis at the outset and appropriately during the conduct of the case;
- failure to respond to communications – failure to reply to letters is a clear instance of poor service;
- failure to return phone calls or reply to faxes and emails;
- not doing something we agreed to do;
- failing to comply with the complaints handling procedure required by the code;
- not treating the client with fairness and respect;
- failing to give information about trials and hearings; and
- failure to pay interest.
Issues which are more subjective, but which are nevertheless strongly indicative of poor service include:
- failure to provide written evidence of advice given;
- failure to inform of progress – even where there has not been any;
- failure to update the client on a reasonable basis;
- failure to follow instructions or to explain why instructions have not been followed;
- not abiding by a quote;
- varying substantially from an estimate without prior notification;
- terminating a retainer unsatisfactorily (this can include an inappropriate reason for terminating a retainer as well as the means of termination);
- deceiving or misleading the client – not only clearly a service issue, but usually a conduct one as well.
All expressions of dissatisfaction or concern should be treated per se as a potential complaint even if, at first sight, they appear ill-founded or based upon, for example, an unrealistic expectation of what we can do. This includes concerns which are raised during telephone calls or client interviews, and are not limited to formal letters of complaint, and includes complaints communicated by telephone, facsimile or e-mail. Indeed a written complaint may occupy only a paragraph or two of a letter dealing primarily with other matters.
Immediately concerns are raised, the Fee Earner who has conduct of the matter must discuss the situation with the client, and, in any event, no later than three days from the date on which these are raised, unless he or she is absent from the office during that period or engaged upon a substantial client matter; in which case a telephone call or holding letter should be made/ sent to the client explaining this, and, further, stating that the Fee Earner will contact the client immediately upon their return. Needless to say thorough attendance notes should be recorded of all telephone calls, and copies of letters sent retained on file.
Always put yourself in the other person’s shoes, within reason; try and understand the situation from their perspective. Resort should never be had to overly legalistic language; rather deal with issues raised in succinct, plain English, which does not obfuscate or obscure those issues. Demonstrate that you are genuinely listening to their concerns, taking them seriously. Address the issues raised, rather than resort to standard responses. Even if you do not agree with them, patiently explain the reasons for your viewpoint, and, however difficult, remain polite and courteous.
Professional complaints may come from other sources aside from clients – friends and relatives, fellow professionals or counsel, court officials or members of the judiciary. For clarification, our complaints procedure is applicable to complaints from whatever source, subject to the caveat that only the client may directly complain on an issue in connection with their instructions. A complaint from any other source will undoubtedly raise further issues of confidentiality. Where the client has terminated their retainer with us and instructed alternative solicitors, those solicitors may complain on the client’s behalf provided that the remit of their instructions from the client embraces the complaint. A complaint may itself arise out of our management of the complaints procedure, or our client care policies generally.
Hopefully the situation can be resolved to the client’s satisfaction, which, again, must be confirmed in writing to the client, and a copy retained on file. Even if that is the case, the Managing Director must be notified of the situation and the fact that it has been resolved reported to him, utilising the Complaint Report (Appendix 2B). The purpose of this is not to castigate or count black marks against individuals but to build a useful source of data about the Firm and the service we provide, and enable us to periodically review where we may be able to improve that service or the client’s perception of it. Failure to report, of itself, is a serious disciplinary offence. Copies of any correspondence with the client should be attached.
Where the matter cannot be resolved informally, the client MUST be reminded of their right to contact the Managing Director on the matter, although this is referred to in our Terms of Retainer, and a client copy of our Client Complaints Policy (Appendix 2A) sent to them immediately by the Fee Earner, noting that this has been done on file. The client must be given every assurance that their concerns will be dealt with in a prompt and confidential manner.
Serious complaints or allegations of gravity MUST always be referred, and are not ordinarily suitable for informal resolution e.g dishonesty, allegations of professional negligence, repeated and systematic poor service etc
A copy of the Complaint Report, clearly stating that the matter is unresolved, must be sent to the Managing Director, accompanied by copies of any relevant correspondence and telephone attendance notes, together with a note of any advice which the Fee earner has given the client regarding furtherance of the complaint. Any correspondence subsequently received by the fee-earner MUST be immediately to copied to him.
The Managing Director maintains a confidential Central Register of Complaints (Appendix 2C), summarising each complaint and its outcome. Individual complaints files are further maintained in respect of each complaint, comprising of the Complaints Report and all attendance notes and copies of correspondence.
Complaints are reviewed and evaluated annually as an aspect of the firm’s Annual Practice Review; common trends or failings identified, and consideration given to changes in procedure that may lessen the likelihood of complaints in the future.
Our Complaints Procedure ordinarily requests that the Client expresses their concerns in writing at this stage, although telephone calls are not discouraged. It is often easier for clients to articulate their concerns in writing, and the Managing Director then has a clearer idea of the issues raised which require further investigation. However we need to be mindful of the fact that some clients do not have the necessary written skills to express their concerns, which does not make them any less legitimate. Accordingly Fee earners are asked to note in their Report any factors of this nature which may affect the client’s written abilities, or any advice that has been specifically given to them regarding furtherance of the complaint. In any event, our Complaints Procedure advises the client to telephone him and arrange an initial meeting, if they do not feel comfortable putting their concerns in writing, to save any personal embarrassment.
The Managing Director may elect to deal with the matter himself, or refer the matter to independent investigation. He will always do so, where the complaint personally concerns him.
The person investigating the complaint will send a letter to the client acknowledging their complaint, ordinarily within 3 working days of receipt of the client’s letter or telephone call unless they have been absent from the office, which should be explained to the client. The letter of acknowledgement will confirm that the matter is being investigated, and what next step(s) will be taken, and when the client is likely to be hearing from us further. The letter should summarise our understanding of the complaint, request any further information or documentation (specifying a return date) needed to properly consider the complaint and explore with the client how they are seeking to resolve the matter where they have not sought any particular remedy. A copy of the Firm’s complaints policy must be enclosed. The client must be provided with the name and contact details of the person who will be investigating the complaint. As a matter of courtesy the letter should state when they are likely to hear further from us.
We are obliged to make reference to the Legal Ombudsman, providing contact and website details, pointing out to the client that they have a right to complain directly to the LEGAL OMBUDSMAN within 6 months of the conclusion of internal complaints procedures.
The Managing Director will carry out a formal investigation of the complaint, which depending upon its seriousness, may involve discussing the matter with the Fee Earner concerned or other members of staff or persons outside of the Firm whose knowledge or understanding of the matter may have a bearing on the investigation. Unless the complaint is of a fairly trivial nature, he would ordinarily call for and review the client’s file and papers, and Fee Earners must ensure that these are delivered immediately upon request. Failure or delay in delivering files will be treated as a disciplinary offence.
Individual issues which form the basis of the complaint should be separately identified and itemised at the outset, and provide the focus of the investigation. Be to the point and succinct, requesting further information from the client when there is a clear need for clarification.
The extent and thoroughness of the investigation warranted will, to a significant extent, be dictated by the seriousness and gravity of the client’s allegations.
At the outset the he will assess how long the process of investigation is likely to take, and inform the client of this in the letter of acknowledgement. Unless the matter is unusually complex, or the fee-earner or other members of staff are likely to be absent from the office, which facts should be explained to the client in the letter of acknowledgement, an investigation will be completed within 7 working days.
He may consider it appropriate, during the course of his investigations, to invite the client for a personal interview, in order to clarify any matters or simply to re-establish the client’s goodwill. The client will ordinarily be invited for interview in the letter of acknowledgement. Where a client has been invited for interview, investigations will ordinarily be completed within 3 working days of the interview, and the letter of acknowledgement amended accordingly with regard to anticipated timescales.
As a matter of natural justice, staff involved should be given a full and fair opportunity to respond and make their own representations regarding the complaint, and be supplied with all relevant documentation and materials to enable them to do so. In minor matters, verbal responses may suffice, although these should be properly recorded (and preferably signed by the member of staff concerned). It may be appropriate, in certain circumstances, to engage a third party to review the client’s file. All meetings etc should be recorded, and summarised on the Individual Complaint Form.
Upon conclusion of the investigation, the person investigating the complaint will ordinarily inform the fee-earner of the outcome as a matter of courtesy, and immediately write to the client informing them of his findings, and inviting their response.
Where the complaint is substantiated to any degree by the findings of the investigation, the letter will offer appropriate redress, which may include:
- Reduction or abatement of any bill issued;
- Reduction of quotations or estimates or the bill that the client would ultimately have been presented with;
- Waiver of all charges in connection with an instruction;
- Future conduct of work on a pro bono basis;
- Taking specific action to put matters right at the Firm’s expense;
- Offers of compensation within the guidelines laid down by the Law Society’s ‘Handling Complaints Effectively’.
The letter may also invite the client to a further meeting, where it is felt that such a meeting would assist resolution of the situation and re-establish goodwill.
In general compensation will be appropriate where the client has been put to additional expense or lost money or value as a result of a proven allegation, or the client has suffered substantial distress or anxiety. Further discussions with the client may be necessary to determine quantum, which should be proposed within the guidelines laid down by the Law Society’s ‘Handling Complaints Effectively’.
Most complaints can be investigated and responded to within a period of 21 days, unless the matter is serious and/or complex, in which case this should be explained to the client and a reasonable and realistic time-frame specified in which the Firm will conclude its investigations and respond.
Where it is clear from their response that the client does not accept the findings of the investigation or the redress that has been offered, then he will write to the client within three working days specifically proposing one of the routes of appeal set down in our published Complaints Procedure, having made the necessary arrangements for such appeal. The letter will also state how long we anticipate that the appeal process is likely to take. The Client should be allowed an opportunity to make such representations as may be reasonable in the circumstances to the persons or body charged with hearing the appeal.
He will immediately inform the client of the outcome of any Appeal unless he has been absent from the office or engaged upon a substantial client matter, which should be explained to the client.
In the event that the client expresses their rejection of the findings of the Appeal and or the redress proposed by it, the client must be notified in writing of their right to complaint to the Legal Ombudsman, and given contact details in connection therewith.
The client must be immediately informed of any delays to the timescales set out in the letter of acknowledgement and published Complaints Procedures, and the reasons for them.
It would also be sensible at that time to consider whether outside help or further advice from the Law Society, the SRA or the Legal Ombudsman is required. This may be especially the case if the client intends to make a claim against the firm or notifies the firm of such an intention, or if the firm discovers an act or omission that may justify such a claim.
Whenever we are aware that the Client has a potential claim in negligence against us, we are obliged to inform them of the fact, and advise them to seek independent advice on the matter. The matter must also be referred to the firm’s Insurers. This is ordinarily undertaken by the Senior Partner, and the fee-earner should refer any instances to him for action.
If a complaint is successfully resolved to the satisfaction of the client, it is hoped that the Fee Earner will be able to continue with the file. In some circumstances, however, where the solicitor/client relationship has broken down completely, it will be better for another Fee Earner to take the file over. Any Fee Earner who continues with a file after a complaint has been satisfactorily resolved must make effort to repair their relationship with the client.
Fee Earners and others about whom a substantiated complaint is made can expect that some form of corrective action will be taken. This may take the form of a short informal word from the Senior Partner with a view to avoiding similar difficulties or misunderstandings in the future, or, in more serious cases, a formal note on the fee-earner’s personnel file in which case the matter will be reviewed at annual appraisal. Where appropriate, consideration will be given to any necessary changes in procedure or, to the training needs of the member of staff concerned.
Complaints are an expensive and time-consuming occurrence which can undermine the Firm’s reputation, and can in most instances be avoided if case management procedures are fully complied with. Complaints which, for reasons of delay or poor management are referred to the Legal Ombudsman, are even more time consuming and expensive, and can lead to adjudication and proceedings before the Tribunal.
In short, complaints must be dealt with promptly, fairly and free of charge.