Neil Stevenson: Rising level of complaints about lawyers means legal levy will have to increase

In the past year, we have seen a rising number of complaints about lawyers being brought to us. A 12 per cent increase was reported in our last Annual Report figures, and a 23 per cent rise was noted in the first six months of this operating year.
The scales of justiceThe scales of justice
The scales of justice

This was one of the key factors in our decision to propose an increase to the levy Scotland’s legal profession pays to fund the independent complaints body.

Last Friday [31 March], we published the responses to our annual budget consultation, and having carefully considered all the responses received to the consultation, our board has now approved a 12.5 per cent increase in the levy.

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We were disappointed one of the bodies representing lawyers dismissed the sharp rise in complaints as just “two or three complaints a week”.

This fails to recognise that for every lawyer and complainer involved, resolving a dispute is stressful and may relate to difficult stages in someone’s life and significant amounts of money.

If those responsible for standards do not take complaints seriously, then dissatisfaction may continue to grow.

Much has been said in some of the responses about the fact that even though complaint numbers are rising, a large proportion of those complaints are not accepted for full investigation.

However, every complaint requires going through a detailed eligibility assessment before we can decide whether it is admissible. So while we freely acknowledge we need to look at the underlying reasons behind the rise in complaints, a rise in the levy is necessary to meet the increased costs.

The rise doesn’t just follow the significant growth in the numbers of complaints – it also takes into account costs resulting from a court ruling last year which fundamentally changed the system of complaints handling, and the uncertainty that has caused. In recent years, we had been able to freeze or even reduce the levy, and had subsidised those reductions from our cash reserves, but we have always been clear that those reserves were not limitless and that a rebalancing of fees would be necessary.

The new levy means that, in real terms, the increase in fees since 2012/13 is just over 5 per cen for most solicitors, and is actually a 5 per cent decrease for in-house lawyers over the same period.

For solicitors in private practice – who account for around half of those who pay the levy - there will be an annual increase of £40 to £356 and for other groups the rise, in cash terms, is much lower.

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As there was some appetite in the response for a move to a ‘polluter pays’ principle, where the areas of the legal profession where most complaints arise (residential property, wills and executries, civil litigation, family law) pay more, we have committed to working with the various professional bodies, including the Law Society of Scotland and the Faculty of Advocates, in the months ahead to explore how we further improve the levy process in future years.

The budget is now finalised and approved and a copy will now be laid before the Scottish Parliament.

Neil Stevenson is Chief Executive of the Scottish Legal Complaints Commission