At the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) we’ve seen complaints fall as lockdowns hit, and rise again as the economy, and our lives, reopen. Understanding the market conditions and the consumer behaviour that drives this is complex, but a picture is perhaps beginning to emerge.
Ombudsman Services – which provides independent dispute resolution across sectors like energy and communications – recently published its annual Consumer Action Monitor. This year it tracked the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on consumers’ attitudes and behaviours to complaining. It found that following years of rising complaint numbers, complaints fell significantly during lockdown, and remain lower than pre-pandemic levels.
The report concluded that consumers, “demonstrated greater tolerance and leniency by limiting their complaint activity during the pandemic”. It also noted the significant efforts made by providers to implement measures to support consumers, and to keep providing a good service to customers, wherever possible within the restrictions.
This chimes with what we’ve seen in the legal services sector. Firms have worked hard to continue to meet their clients’ needs and offer a good service despite all of the challenges they’ve faced.
A year ago we issued a statement to the profession about how we’d deal with complaints arising from the pandemic. We wanted to reassure firms that we would take into account the challenges presented by Covid-19 in considering any complaints we received. That includes restrictions on conveyancing transactions and court business, on in-person meetings, access to the office and standard communication channels.
Our experience from the past year shows lawyers and firms have largely adjusted well. We know that firms have had to adapt their business practices to the ever changing situation, while trying to maintain a good quality service to their clients. However, we have not seen the increase in complaints that we feared we might, and that is testament to the hard work of lawyers and firms across the country.
Where we have seen the impact of Covid-19 on complaints, we have been able to dismiss issues which were outside the firm’s control, such as delays in conveyancing transactions caused by restrictions on the overall process. In some cases, however, we have upheld issues where there was a delay in the firm communicating a problem to their client, even if the delay itself was outwith their control. Client communication is even more important when progress is uncertain and delays are likely.
The small number of these complaints highlights the incredible effort by firms to maintain levels of service for their clients, despite all of the challenges this year has thrown at them. It may also demonstrate consumers less willing or motivated to complain in the current circumstances.
What we don’t know, of course, as Ombudsman Services highlights in the report, is whether this change is a ‘pandemic phenomenon’, or whether the experience of Covid-19 will be the catalyst for longer term changes in the customer service provided by firms, or in consumer behaviour and attitudes to complaining. It’s an issue we’ll continue to track.
Vicky Crichton is Director of Public Policy, Scottish Legal Complaints Commission