Changing landscape sees consumer issues rise up the agenda

The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission helped consumers complain about their lawyer. Picture: Neil Hanna

The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission helped consumers complain about their lawyer. Picture: Neil Hanna

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But there are still barriers to businesses, writes Neil Stevenson

As one part of the Scottish consumer landscape, we’ve watched consumer issues rise up the agenda following the transfer of powers over consumer advocacy and advice under the new Scotland Act.

With consumer redress one of the issues recently considered by the independent Working Group on Consumer and Competition Policy for Scotland, we know there are still barriers to consumers and businesses understanding the benefits to engaging with a scheme like ours.

Last year we helped over 1,000 consumers who wanted to complain about their lawyer and we awarded over £400,000 in consumer redress. These awards helped put legal work right, compensate clients for loss, and make up for distress caused. While the maximum amount we can require a lawyer to pay is £20,000, in reality it is lots of far smaller amounts which make up this total.

When the figure was published in our annual report, it was soon being debated by voices on both sides. Those who are often critical of the legal profession said it was only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of money ‘really’ due back to consumers. Some in the legal profession suggested it showed that we were too willing to take the consumer ‘side’ against lawyers.

The argument wasn’t just around redress. Just over 200 complaints were dismissed at our first stage as “frivolous, vexatious, or totally without merit” (the wording set down by law for us to use). Although these complaints have been considered by us, no one benefits if we use resources taking forward cases that have no basis or no prospect of success. This was seen by some as us taking the lawyer’s ‘side’ too often.

The differing needs and expectations of the different groups we work with are to be expected. The nature of our work is liaising with two parties in dispute, and untimely having to take a final decision which one party may not like. When we determine an individual case we must be entirely independent, impartial, and fair - principles which have guided our work since we were established eight years ago, and which will continue to guide it.

However, when we recently consulted on our new strategy, we suggested that sometimes our work has to reflect the huge power imbalance between a lawyer and a consumer. A consumer who is often purchasing legal services at stressful times in their life and not fully understanding the situation and processes they are in and all the legal complexities of it.

Some feedback on the proposed strategy was fairly forceful. It was suggested all consumers would be aware of their right to complain because this was covered in lawyers’ contracts and therefore no further action was needed to raise awareness of this right.

I have to confess, I rarely read the small print of my credit card or phone contract, or even the fourteen pages I was given when buying a house. It’s great it is covered there, but from our work with consumers it’s not necessarily where they look when needing help.

We think it’s wholly appropriate to make sure people can find us on the web or through Citizens’ Advice bureaux. Elsewhere, the idea we would lobby for changes to legislation to improve complaint handling was described as “ultra vires” by one legal body.

• Neil Stevenson is Chief Executive of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission

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