Professional Negligence Lawyer, Lee Dawkins, explains.

The new Legal Ombudsman (LeO) has opened its doors for business and first reports are that trade is brisk.

The early signs suggest that referrals to the Legal Ombudsman are running at around 120,000 a year, though the system is capable of handling closer to 165,000 a year.

The new structure replaces both the old Legal Services Ombudsman and the Legal Complaints Service (LCS). For the first time one body will be responsible for handling service complaints across the entire legal profession. The LeO deals not just with complaints about solicitors but also complaints about barristers, licensed conveyancers, legal executives and others.

Consumers should however be aware that not all legal services are provided by professionally qualified lawyers. The Legal Ombudsman has no regulatory role to play in the activities carried out by certain will writers, unlicensed conveyancers or unqualified divorce practitioners, for instance. These are all services that can be provided by people who have no legal qualifications whatsoever and who are not therefore regulated by anyone. So, as with so many other aspects of consumer law, the principle ‘caveat emptor’ (or buyer beware) is still applicable when it comes to legal services.

Where the complaint does involve a properly qualified lawyer the complainant must give that lawyer an opportunity to sort things out before the Legal Ombudsman will intervene. The LeO should be regarded as an appeal mechanism, only coming into play once attempts to resolve the complaint direct with the lawyer have failed.

The new body aims to deal with legal complaints in a speedy and informal way. Its philosophy is based on attempting to resolve disputes between lawyer and client by agreement, rather than by means of a quasi-judicial process. If agreement cannot be reached however one of the ombudsmen will make a formal decision, which if accepted by the complainant will be binding on all parties. Decisions, we are told, will be based on principles of fairness and the adequacy of the legal services provided.

There is no doubt that the LeO has muscle. Not only does it have power to compel co-operation but it can order compensation to be paid by the lawyer to the complainant of up to £30,000.

The service is funded by the legal profession itself. In addition to receiving a percentage of the fee for the lawyer’s annual practising certificate the Legal Ombudsman will also charge a case fee of £400 for each complaint that is accepted for investigation, but only where a firm has already had two complaints in the previous 12 months.

It is still early days and it will be interesting to see how the LeO evolves. We will be carefully monitoring the situation as there is a close interplay between legal complaints (especially complaints against solicitors and complaints against barristers) and professional negligence claims against lawyers. We will therefore be interested to receive feedback from people using the LeO service.

If you have experience of dealing with the LeO (good or bad), email Lee Dawkins at lee.dawkins@sleeblackwell.co.uk