Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)|
4 MAY 2004
Q20 Mr Soley: Listening to you and looking
at some areas of your report, you are actually being quite gentle
on the services you are supervising or looking at. You must have
a great deal of experience of consumer complaints. Can I put it
to you that in fact, putting it kindly, many of the professionals
in the area you are dealing with have come very late in the day
to the idea of consumer complaints. Putting it rather more bluntly,
most of them object strongly to the concept of consumer complaints,
do not like the idea, feel they are being put upon and that consumers
should stop whingeing, pay their money and accept the service
they get because it is a far better service than they appreciate.
That is the attitude of a significant number, is it not?
Ms Manzoor: It would be difficult
for me to comment on that for the simple reason that obviously
I do not see a significant amount of complaints that come to the
professional bodies. I see a number of complaints that come to
my office. I think it would be unfair to say that the majority
of solicitors and barristers do not handle their complaints well,
because on the whole the majority do handle the complaints very
well. However, there are some real concerns about the minority
that do not handle those complaints very well. A robust approach
needs to be taken to enforce, for instance for solicitors from
the Law Society, Rule 15, which says very clearly that solicitors
have to have a written complaints-handling procedure and they
have to log all the complaints that they receive. It is interesting
to me, when you look at the last two surveys that have been undertaken,
that 6% of the firms did not actually have a written complaints-handling
Therefore, I think a robust approach by the Law Society needs
to be undertaken to ensure that there is a written complaints-handling
procedure, that complaints are logged, and that solicitors who
need training in client care are given that training. The Law
Society also set up a Standards Practice Unit. It was envisaged,
when this was set up in November 2001, that the Standards Practice
Unit would go out and visit solicitors, approximately 2000 firms
a years. I have been disappointed that the number of firms that
they have managed to visit has not been of that ilk; it has been
about approximately 134 firms and potentially a little less the
previous year. The intention was that they would audit these firms,
look at their complaint-handling processes and at their compliance
Through the Law Society's own research, it is pretty evident that
when they visit these firms there is a marked improvement in their
complaint-handing systems and processes. Certainly, it is an area
that I will be working very closely on with the Law Society to
see if we can have more audits.
Q21 Mr Soley: I can accept that there
has been a significant improvement, thanks to the Law Society
partly recently, but I think you would accept that there is still
an awful lot of people out there in these services who are way
below par when it comes to dealing with public complaints and
who do not believe the public should be complaining in the way
that they are. That is right, is it not?
Ms Manzoor: I think there are
a lot of people who feel that they are not getting the service
that they deserve. We have to look at the number of complaints
that comes to the Law Society. We must not forget the at times
very tortuous complaints-handling process. A complainant has first
got to complain to the practitioner. If they are not satisfied,
then the complainant has to write to the professional body and
the complainant then may have to go through very complicated processes
before the complaint lands on my desk; which it may or may not.
Complainants have to be pretty persistent to get through the very
complicated process. I often say that they must have persistent
genes. I wonder what percentage of complaints do not make it off
first base. In these cases we are really looking at the reduction
of access to justice for them.
Q22 Mr Soley: I think that is right.
What you are saying is that the Law Society has made a significant
attempt recently with the new consumer complaints service amongst
other things. I agree with that. What I would like to understand
a bit better is how you see your relationship with the variety
of these legal bodies proceeding. A number of us would say that
if it does not improve rapidly, then it ought to be statutory,
frankly. Do you see yourself as dealing with them in a consultative
discussion method? You point out in your own report that you want
to have an improved relationship with the bodies but I am not
quite sure whether an improved relationship means you are helping
them, guiding them if you like, towards a better complaints procedure
or actually being prepared to put the boot in at times when they
Ms Manzoor: I do not know if you
have read my interim report.
Certainly I think that the professional bodies would say that
my approach was very robust. Anyone reading that report will be
under no illusion at the very robust approach I have taken to
complaints handling with the professional bodies. I have a very
good and effective relationship with the five professional bodies.
I think, certainly in my Ombudsman role, I need to ensure sometimes
that there is greater communication and co-operation. I have highlighted
that in my report. One hears about some areas, for instance the
new directorate, the Consumer Complaints Directorate, which was
announced without any consultation taking place. I think stakeholders
could be involved much sooner than they have been in terms of
any changes that are taking place. Certainly, I enjoy excellent
working relationships but you are right to suggest that as Ombudsman
I can only make recommendations as to where improvements could
be made. Certainly, over the past year I can demonstrate numerous
changes that the Bar Council has made as a result of us working
very closely together for the benefit of the consumer. That is
all very good progress that has been made. That is not to say
that there is not further progress to be made because that would
not be accurate. You have rightly pointed out earlier that we
have undertaken a review of complaints handling by the three smaller
professional bodies. Once again, we will be working very closely
with the Bar Council some time later on this year to look at auditing
and reviewing their complaints handling on site. They have been
very amenable and co-operative in order to allow me to do this.
For example, they undertook a MORI survey last year, which was
pretty hard-hitting. Anyone reading that report would say that
some of the issues raised needed to be addressed. The Bar Council
has undertaken a number of initiatives that will help to progress
that matter. To give you an example of the things that they are
doing, and this survey was conducted in June 2003, 74% of the
complainants were dissatisfied with the outcome of their complaint
and 75% of the barristers were satisfied with the outcome. You
can see the two views that are polarised. The majority of the
complainants in that survey said that the system lacked independence
and 29% of the complainants were not aware that the Bar Council
had any lay representation on its Complaints Committee. They also
cited that access to the service could be better and maybe the
language that was used by barristers could be simpler. The response
from the Bar Council has been excellent. They have been looking
at setting up a telephone servicethey do not call it a
help lineso that barristers and indeed complainants can
telephone and ask for advice and information regarding their complaints.
That is all very positive. They have looked at the clarity of
the information that they produce, so they are looking at their
leaflets and their standard letters, and they have started making
changes to those. They are looking at their performance statistics.
One of the anomalies between the Law Society and the Bar Council
was that the Bar Council's turnaround time seemed very long, but
when you got into the detail of it, the clock kept on ticking
irrespective whether that case when to court or not, or indeed
was referred to my office, whereas in the Law Society's case the
clock stopped ticking when it came to my office or went to court.
They are auditing their performance statistics . . . so that they
better reflect what is happening to a case. They have been looking
at access, particularly for disabled complainants; they have sent
all of their staff on diversity awareness training, which is the
result of us working together; they are looking at home visits
to complainants; they are looking at tape-recording for complainants
that do not have the language skills that they may need. Indeed,
they have invited the Law College to undertake client care training
when there is direct access to barristers, which of course once
again is very important. Forgive me for saying that barristers
are not used to dealing with complainants; that is an area that
they need to address. Certainly the Bar Council has taken this
on board. I think that is excellent news and I shall be getting
involved with that. I have had one meeting with the Law College
to see what that particular training looks like from a consumer's
Q23 Mr Soley: The reason I was asking
that question initially was that you have in your foreword as
one of the tasks you set yourself to "develop a closer and
more involved working relationship with the professional bodies
with the aim of helping them to identify how they can significantly
improve the performance and effectiveness of the service they
provide to complainants". From everything you are saying,
that is what you are trying to achieve and that is what you are
doing. You are describing a number of achievements which are good,
long overdue and welcome. I still wonder what you do when you
get the very bad ones who do not want to co-operate.
Ms Manzoor: There are individual
cases and those individual cases are dealt with on an individual
basis. If the case is being dealt with poorly, then I can assure
you there is a very robust stance taken, whichever professional
body it is.
Q24 Mr Soley: Would you like statutory
powers to deal with those?
Ms Manzoor: As LSCC, I have been
given the additional statutory powers to deal with the Law Society
in terms of its overall performance. I think those powers certainly
could be enhanced. You are right to say that the powers that I
had previously had, held no sanctions as Legal Services Ombudsman.
I could only make recommendations. Professional bodies could ignore
them, should they wish to do so. On the whole, I think that the
professional bodies have tried to make a concerted effort in trying
to implement some of those recommendations. What I am suggesting
in my answers is that some professional bodies have had more success
than others. The Legal Services Complaints Commissioner has been
appointed in relation to the Law Society, and I am looking forward
to working closely with them to ensure that we continue to implement
changes to the overall performance.
Q25 Mr Soley: May I interrupt you there?
Are there any specific additional powers you would like to have?
Ms Manzoor: That is an interesting
question! It is early days yet. I have only been appointed as
the LSCC from 23 February. One of the weaknesses certainly as
LSCC that I can see is that I have no right of entry on to the
premises of any professional body. That is currently a weakness.
I have to gain permission and at the moment my power only relates
to the Law Society, so I can only speak in relation to the Law
Society. I have no right of entry. I think that needs to be strengthened.
Q26 Chairman: Is that a real problem.
Is there hiding of files or shredding of document so that you
have to get in there, do you think?
Ms Manzoor: I hope it is not going
to be a problem. Indeed, the Law Society took legal advice on
Friday in terms of my powers. The Director of the Customer Complaints
Service, Ian Wright, telephoned me this morning as I was travelling
down to say that, having taken that legal advice, they will ensure
I have reasonable access to the systems and processes of the Law
Society. I expect co-operation. I am sure I will get co-operation.
Early indications are that I will receive that co-operation but
it is early days, and I will see over the next few weeks and months
how much co-operation I receive.
Q27 Mr Soley: Finally, is the impact
of the independent Lay Commissioner appointment by the Law Society
good, do you think? Is the impact that the lay appointment system
has had on the Law Society good?
Ms Manzoor: The impact on the
Law Society or the impact on the consumer?
Mr Soley: The impact it has had on the
processing of complaints?
Q28 Chairman: This is the appointment
of the independent Lay Commissioner.
Ms Manzoor: Certainly I think
for consumers it is good news because I would like to feel that,
by working with the Law Society, we can push through improvements
that are needed and necessary in terms of complaints handling.
As for the impact on the Law Society, as I have already indicated,
there is some nervousness regarding the appointment of the Commissioner.
It is true to say that they did not want the Commissioner to be
Q29 Chairman: I think we are talking
about two different commissioners. I think Mr Soley is referring
to the appointment of Sir Stephen Lander by the Law Society as
its independent Commissioner or Lay Commissioner. The terminology
is hopelessly confusing.
Ms Manzoor: It is.
Q30 Mr Soley: I thought you were saying
it is good and that is why I think we are getting confused.
Ms Manzoor: My appointment is
good as independent Commissioner because I am independent of the
legal profession; I have no conflicts of interest and I am there
to ensure that there is a balance of power between the professional
bodies and indeed the consumer. In terms of the Lay Commissioner,
or what was subsequently called the Independent Commissioner,
I have indicated my concerns in my annual report, and indeed in
my interim report, regarding the role and functions of that appointment.
Just as we were talking, there was that confusion. You will appreciate
the confusion that it must create for consumers. The Lay Commissioner
appointment is an internal appointment by the Law Society. I do
not view it as independent. That does not reflect any issue in
terms of the integrity or the impartiality of the person holding
that office but, from the consumers' perspective, it is not independent
of the processes and systems of the Law Society.
Q31 Ross Cranston: I wanted to raise
a general issue because you spoke about access to justice and
it is this distinction between professional negligence on the
one hand and inadequate professional service on the other hand.
I think you have raised questions about this. Some of the complaints
that do go to the professional bodies must be quite complex where
they raise confidentiality and conflict of interest, for example,
and just as complex as if you had negligence, although I can see
why if you have a big negligence case you might say that it is
appropriate to go to court. But for the smaller negligence case,
it does not seem to me, just at first blush, that there is any
difference. What are your thoughts on this? I know you have raised
the issue but where is it going?
Ms Manzoor: It is a very important
issue. Certainly the interface between the poor service that a
lawyer may give and negligence is a very fine line. I want to
push the boundaries that much further so that minor areas of negligence
can indeed be accessed by the professional bodies. Certainly the
Bar Council looks at those cases more so. The Law Society is beginning
to look at the interface. They have not yet produced criteria;
they are in the process of doing that. I would certainly like
those boundaries to be pushed out.
Q32 Ross Cranston: Would it involve huge
numbers of cases, do you think? Is that one of the problems, or
Ms Manzoor: It is difficult for
me to say because as Ombudsman I have only seen a very small number
of cases. With my LSCC hat on of course I will be able to look
at the overall number of complaints that are coming through to
the Law Society, and so I will be able to see the number of cases
that that affects. There are concerns that there is poor service,
we have negligence cases, and we also have conduct or misconduct
cases and that there is an interface between all of those three
areas. My concern at the moment is over the hybrid cases that
the Law Society is receiving because, as you have rightly stated,
the Law Society has had another organisational change and therefore
it will have three directorates. One will be dealing with service
issues; a different directorate will be dealing with conduct and
compliance issues; the third directorate will be looking at professional
ethics and training.
Q33 Ross Cranston: I guess it is not
simply the hybrid case but just the confusion, is it not? Members
of the Committee are struggling over understanding the structure.
The person in the street would have enormous difficulty in making
these subtle distinctions, then identifying what institution to
go to, then recognising that if they are not happy at that point
there might be a further step. It is very difficult.
Ms Manzoor: I agree with you.
The system we currently have is very complicated and complex and
there are numerous steps in the complaints-handling process. I
do feel that these need to be simplified. You are quite right.
When I became Ombudsman, I saw negligence as a bad form of inadequate
professional service. It was only later I realised, two or three
weeks into my job, that negligence meant something entirely different.
As a lay person, it was a complaint that was handled badly. You
are right, the systems need to be much simpler than they currently
are. The processes need to be much simpler. The information that
goes out to the customer or the consumer needs to be better than
Q34 Chairman: Would good complaints handling
involve telling the complainant that this case is of the order
of poor service and negligence and would it involve advising them
how they could proceed to explore the negligence element if successfully
pursuing that might lead to a very substantial redress of what
might be very significant financial loss or a very significant
entitlement to compensation of a kind which could not simply be
met by dealing with the poor service aspect? Would it involve
advising the complainant that there were routes they could follow
and directing them in some way as to how to do so?
Ms Manzoor: In all fairness, currently
that is the case with all professional bodies. If there are issues
of negligence, mostly the complainant is advised to go back to
the courts. Some complainants obviously have difficulty with that
because they feel that already the legal process has failed them
in one way or another, so there are some complainants that will
not go back to the courts; there are others that may well go down
that route; there are others that may be directed towards the
insurance that a particular professional may have. That is one
way that that case will be dealt with. I think it is very difficult
to analyse an individual complaint and say whether it is on the
borders of negligence or not. I would expect the professional
body to deal with that if it is very much borderline. We also
have to remember at the moment that the compensation level is
a maximum of £5,000 which the professional body can actually
go up to in terms of that individual complaint. However, it is
fair to say that if you look at the number of awards that have
been made by the professional bodies, as you rightly pointed out
earlier, they do not often get up to the maximum of £5,000.
Certainly the Law Society is in the process at the moment of looking
at the range of compensation awards it makes and for what. I have
encouraged them to look very seriously at the £5,000 end
because there are very few awards that are made at that level.
Q35 Chairman: We must remember that the
aggrieved citizen in such a case, if he is going to go back to
the courts, has to find another solicitor prepared to take a negligence
action against the first solicitor, a course of action which,
in a small community, is very difficult. It involves seeking advice
probably from some other place where they do not know how or where
to begin. How should they be helped?
Ms Manzoor: It is a difficulty
and indeed some of the complainants that come to me actually say
when they write, "Look, nobody will take me. I want to go
to another solicitor and no-one is prepared. What do I do? I really
do not want to go back to the courts. It is going to cost me more
money and it is good money after bad", according to their
view. That is a very difficult situation. All I can do is look
at that individual complaint and advise the best course of action.
They can go to the Citizens' Advice Bureau where they can get
free information as to where they can go further with their compliant.
The Law Society itself, when they are looking at complaints, give
some complainants an hour of free advice from what is called the
Negligence Panel, which some complainants take up but others do
not. I do not feel that that is consistently applied. That criterion
needs to be looked at so that the complainant himself can choose
as to which direction he wants to go down. You are right that
there are some complainants who do have this particular concern.
It would be unfair to brand every solicitor in the country as
not being impartial and independent because they are. The majority
of them offer a very good service and, if they feel that there
is an issue of negligence, I would hope that they would take that
Q36 Mr Dawson: Ms Manzoor, it is obviously
very early days but in your role as Legal Services Complaints
Commissioner, what have you done to ensure that this role is more
Ms Manzoor: In terms of the public
at the moment, nothing. I was appointed on 23 February. I wrote
to the Chief Executive of the Law Society on 12 March highlighting
very clearly how I intend to operate. We have started setting
up the office, the systems and processes that we will need. At
the moment, my staff comprises me, my Operations Director sitting
behind me, and one administrative support. That is the level of
my staff. However, the Department has been very encouraging and
has set aside a sum of money. We have started recruiting. We will
be advertising for four posts. Hopefully, we will have high calibre
individuals in place, certainly by September. I am hoping to have
set initial targets for the Law Society by September of this year.
I have already requested an initial plan from the Law Society
on the way that it is going to improve its complaints handing.
By September of this year, I will have already set targets for
the Law Society. By September/October, I will be requesting a
formal, agreed plan from the Law Society against which I can measure
their performance. I am hoping there will be improved performance
by March of next year and that we can demonstrate that. Of course,
if the plan is inadequate, I can say so. If the Law Society fails
to meet the targets that have been set, then of course I have
the penalty powers. To assess the base line initially, I have
recruited management consultants over a period of 12 weeks between
now and the end of June that will actually assess the systems
and processes at the Law Society to give me a foundation from
which to work from, so that at a later date there is no confusion
as to what that base line is and where improvements need to be
made, and there is agreement between the Law Society and myself.
Q37 Mr Dawson: How would you describe
the reaction to your ro®le from professional bodies, such
as the Law Society?
Ms Manzoor: It has been cautious,
and quite rightly so. As I have already indicated, the Law Society
did not want the LSCC to be appointed. However, early indications
have been very positive. It is early days to see how that relationship
moves forward, but it is certainly encouraging.
Q38 Mr Dawson: Has the Bar Council made
representations to you regarding your role?
Ms Manzoor: I think the Bar Council
certainly feels that, thank God, it is not them. That would probably
be their view. I have no oversight in terms of the Bar Council
in my role as LSCC.
Q39 Mr Dawson: Clearly, we have struggled
with a few of the definitions here this afternoon. How will you
demonstrate the separation of your ro®les to the professional
bodies, and indeed to the public?
Ms Manzoor: The two roles are
very different. As LSO, I am looking at individual complaints;
that is my primary function. As LSCC, I have a much wider strategic
role. My two offices are going to be separate. The Ombudsman's
office is based in Manchester; the LSCC office is based in Leeds.
As we develop our business plan, we will share that with all the
professional bodies and we will be looking at leaflets for the
consumers, but we do not have direct interface with the individual
consumer complaints in the first instance. This is very much about
improving the overall performance of complaints handling by the
Law Society and it's members. The two roles are distinct, and
will be seen as distinct, and different staff will be undertaking
those roles. There is no overlap. The only overlap is myself.
2 A survey by the Law Society Gazette in 2002 showed
that 65% of solicitors did not have a satisfactory complaints
procedure and 36% of solicitors had no written procedures. Both
are mandatory and can be a disciplinary matter according to the
Law Society's own rules and regulations. A further survey of 1,400
firms undertaken by the Law Society in June 2003 showed that of
the 741 who responded 6% had no written procedure, only 18% maintained
a written log and 15% failed to give clients information about
their complaints procedure Back
Breaking the Cycle, The Office of the Legal Services Ombudsman
Interim Report April-September 2003 Back