Legal complaints must give consumers power

Last week was Consumer Week, with organisations across the UK discussing consumer rights and consumer empowerment. For many years, the word 'consumer' wasn't readily associated with the legal sector, with the focus on the professional lawyer-'¨client relationship.

vector scales of justice and gavel

This has changed. A recent example is the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) study into the legal services market in England and Wales from a consumer viewpoint. Also, all recent consumer rights acts apply equally to legal and non-legal businesses. The questions of information available to consumers and consumer decision-making aren't alien to legal services. Since 2015, we have had a consumer voice enshrined in the legislation that set us up. Our independent consumer panel includes representatives from Citizens Advice Scotland, CMA and Queen Margaret University’s Consumer Dispute Resolution Centre, who help ensure our processes take account of consumer interests.

We do our best to make our Annual Report as engaging as possible, we also have to follow our duties as a public body to publish certain statutory information. One area always provokes interest, and doesn’t require too much detailed explanation. Whether working with groups of lawyer or speaking to consumers, the question that gets people talking is: “Which areas of legal work lead to the most complaints?”

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The number of complaints we receive is very low compared to the total number of legal transactions in Scotland (even with the 12 per cent increase in complaints made to us in the Annual Report year). However, there’s a definite pattern within those complaints.

Complaints about buying or selling a residential property lead the way – almost a quarter of the total – followed by litigation in court (a fifth). We count complaints made about wills, executries and trusts as a single category (15 per cent of the total). Complaints about family law matters – such as divorce and child contact – make up 12 per cent and complaints about criminal law matters account for 8 per cent. After this comes a “long tail” of different business areas, each accounting for fewer than 5 per cent of the total.

All these areas have stresses associated with them, and three of the top five are associated with major life events. A 2014 survey listed buying or selling a property, divorce and the death of a grandparent as three of the most stressful life events. They also involve the acquisition or disposal of money or assets. If something goes wrong during the transaction, it can have both a big emotional and financial impact.

We know the legal profession works very hard to make sure things don’t go wrong, and the professional bodies promote high standards among members. But is there anything consumers can do to make sure things stay on track?

That question led us to produce a series of consumer guides, based on the most common areas of complaints. Although each guide has specific information, some of the tips are always relevant: don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand; ask about costs and communication in advance; understand your responsibilities to provide information. Already, we know that at least one of the guides, on family law, has been adopted by law firms as part of the information they provide to new clients.

And if things do go wrong? We end each guide with a brief overview of how people can make a complaint to their lawyer and, if that isn’t successful, make a complaint to us. In our last annual report year, we agreed or awarded over £320,000 in redress for those who complained to us. Indeed, one of the key advantages of using a regulated professional is knowing that when things do go wrong, there are safeguards. If things can go right first time, all the better!

Neil Stevenson is Chief Executive, Scottish Legal Complaints Commission