Managing Complaints – Part I
The need for complaint handling procedures
The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has recently published guidance reminding solicitors of their obligations when it comes to informing clients of complaints procedures for barristers. Inevitably this acts as a reminder to all firms of the need for solicitors generally to provide complaint information in a manner which the client is able to comprehend and to make sure that their complaint procedures are transparent and usable.
However, to treat complaint handling as simply a requirement of the SRA Code of Conduct 2011 is to fail to understand the value that firms can derive from a well managed and effective complaints system.
In their 2013 Report, the Legal Ombudsman service revealed that they had received around 71,000 complaints in the year 2012-2013, resulting in a total of 7,630 cases being resolved.
By anyone’s standards that is a substantial number of dissatisfied people – especially given the fact that they will represent only those complaints which come from individuals, micro-businesses and small charities (thus excluding commercial claims from large organisations who are not covered by the scheme).
Research into complaint behaviour reveals that only a small number of dissatisfied clients actually complain. Many choose not to do so because they are sceptical about a firm’s willingness, or ability, to resolve their problem. More often than not, a client will simply not instruct the firm again or criticise the firm to others. In a market place where so much still depends on reputation and word of mouth, firms cannot afford for this to happen.
Research undertaken by Which? Magazine found that 40% of those who claimed to have had poor treatment at the hands of lawyers did not bother to complain whilst almost 75% of those who had complained were dissatisfied with the way their complaint was handled.
This is not a good record in any sector, and particularly worrying when one looks at the competition which law firms are likely to face in the future from alternative business structures and businesses such as the Co-op, Saga and the Halifax who are well used to dealing with customer service issues.
Keeping clients happy is not always easy, no matter how well you do the job and how little you charge. Fortunately, in the vast majority of cases, clients are satisfied with the services which they receive from their solicitor, barrister, legal executive or other lawyer. Every so often, however, things either do not go according to plan or the client feels let down. This may be because the lawyer has not done good a job, it may be because the client has not obtained the result he or she wanted or it may simply be that the client has not understood what was being done and what the likely outcome would be.
Whatever the reason for the dissatisfaction, the problem needs to be addressed in such a way that the client is happy with the outcome and the firm is not left in a position where time, resources and money have been unnecessarily expended.
All firms need to adopt and implement an effective, robust and transparent complaint handling process. To help you in dealing with this we have compiled a series of guides which provide an introduction to complaint handling and look specifically at:
- The need for complaint handling procedures,
- Implementing complaint handling procedures, and
- The content of a complaint handling policy.
In this, the first of three articles dealing with the handling of complaints, we look at the need for complaint handling procedures and in particular at the benefits that can be derived from an effective complaint handling system and at the practical and regulatory reasons why firms should have an effective system.
Why have a complaints system?
There are a number of very good reasons why a firm should, indeed must, have a complaint handling system. Some of those reasons are regulatory whilst others, often the most convincing arguments, are practical, business-focused and competitive.
Clearly the best way is not to let complaints arise in the first place and firms should be doing everything possible to ensure that client care procedures are effective and implemented. However, it is almost inevitable that complaints will arise, so firms might as well make sure that they have in place system which enable those complaints to be handled properly and, wherever possible, operate to the benefit rather than the detriment, of the practice.
Handling complaints effectively can make a substantial difference to the effectiveness of a firm and end up increasing the costs of practice. Examples of costs that can arise include:
- the cost to the firm in terms of handling the complaint – if the firm has a system which effectively nips complaints in the bud then it will waste less fee-earner and administrative time dealing with them;
- the cost to the firm in terms of foregone or returned fees – if complaints are handled effectively at the outset there is less chance that fees will need to be foregone or refunded;
- the cost to the firm in terms of the bad reputation that an unhappy complainant will create;
- the cost to the firm in terms of lowering morale – staff who have to deal with angry or dissatisfied clients are likely to perform less effectively;
- the cost to the firm in terms of a lost opportunity – a complaint is a way to find out how the firm could do things better in the future.
The practical reasons for having a complaint system
An effective complaint system is an essential part of the provision of a quality consumer service and a good means of measuring:
- client satisfaction – clients who are dissatisfied with the service which they are receiving will complain. That complaint can be used to highlight inadequacies within the firm and give the firm an opportunity to raise levels of client satisfaction;
- the adequacy of procedures – if a firm does not have adequate procedures in place then this will become apparent by observing complaints – for example if clients regularly complain that documents are lost or temporary absence cover is not adequate;
- the competency of staff – complaints can alert a firm to issues such as whether staff are competent and able to handle matters in an adequate and timely fashion, know the law or are able effectively to explain matters to clients, and
- the level of charging – if a firm’s costs are too high then this will very soon become apparent through complaints – especially since many clients are very aware of what the competition is charging.
Moreover, a complaint gives the firm the chance to put things right. Put another way, a complaint is free market research data.
However, just because the firm doesn’t get complaints doesn’t always mean it is perfect. It may simply be that:
- clients chose not to complain,
- the process for complaints is overly complex, or
- clients see the firm as hostile to complaints and rather than waste time complaining they just go elsewhere or worse, tells others to go elsewhere.
That is why having an effective, transparent, client focused and usable complaints system is so important.
An appropriate complaint handling system can:
- let the firm know if a particular fee-earner keeps making mistakes or, more worryingly, keeps making the same mistake;
- by encouraging clients to raise issues with the firm, prevent minor complaints and grievances from becoming major problems;
- highlight processes and procedures within the firm that are inadequate; and
- help ensure that an adequate level of service is provided – if a client’s expectation exceeds what the firm is delivering, then the firm has two options – increase the level of service or manage an unreasonably high expectation level.
Of course there will always be those complaints instigated by the client’s desire to get something for free rather than from a genuine feeling that something has not been done correctly. However, a good complaints system will help the firm to weed out those spurious or ingenuous complaints and can even help by ensuring that the firm is not placed in a similar position in the future. Even a totally unjustified complaint can indicate that there has been a breakdown of communications somewhere along the line.
There are a number of regulatory reasons why firms need to have a complaint handling system and these apply to solicitors, legal executives, barristers and many others.
The complaint handling requirements for solicitors are to be found in Chapter 1:You and Your Client in the SRA Code of Conduct 2011. Although not as neatly separated out as in previous incarnations of the Code of Conduct, nevertheless they remain as onerous and comprehensive in their effect.
Here, Outcome O(1.9) requires that:
Outcome O(1.10) requires that:
Outcome O(1.11) requires that:
Outcome O(1.14) requires that:
whilst Outcome O(1.15) goes so far as to place a duty upon the solicitor/firm to tell the client if it/he/she becomes aware that something has been done or omitted to be done that they might have missed but about which they could complain:
The Outcomes are then backed up by a series of indicative behaviours dealing specifically with complaint handling, requiring at IB(1.22) that solicitors have:
That the solicitor provides the client with a copy of the firm’s complaints procedure on request (IB(1.23)) and that in the event that a client makes a complaint, providing them with all necessary information concerning the handling of the complaint (IB(1.24)).
Chartered Legal Executives
The complaint handing requirements of the Institute of Legal Executives Professional Standards are somewhat less draconian than those which apply to solicitors, but they nevertheless are important and their provisions should be borne in mind at all times. Because at present the majority of Legal Executives work in other legal practices, all members of ILEX should make sure that they are fully aware of the complaint processes of the regulator which deals with the organisation in which they work since they will be subject to those provisions as well as those of their own regulatory body.
Principle 5 of the ILEX Professional Standards Code of Conduct provides that members must inform clients “fully and honestly about details of costs and complaints procedures.” Further information as to what is required by this is provided by the ILEX Professional Standards Guidance on Complaint Handling, which provides that ILEX members must take all practicable steps to make sure that:
- complaints handling procedures provide effective safeguards for clients;
- complaints are dealt with fully and promptly; and
- appropriate redress is provided where necessary.
and even if the ILEX member does not have direct responsibility for complaints handling policy or procedures within their firm or workplace they are nevertheless expected to do what they can to comply with the guidance provided.
The guidance goes on to state that:
The full Code of Conduct can be found on the ILEX Professional Standards web site at http://bit.ly/1gjbARf
The primary duty upon barristers to deal with complaints is to be found in section C3 of the Bar Standards Board Handbook which provides that “Clients understand how to bring a complaint and complaints are dealt with promptly, fairly, openly and effectively”.
In addition, D1.1 deals with the complaints rules that apply to self-employed barristers, chambers and BSB authorised bodies. These provide as follows:
The Bar Standards Board also provide what they describe as “First Tier Complaints Handling” which can be found on the BSB web site at http://bit.ly/1f04SKr
The SRA guidance on Barrister Complaint Information
On the 4 March 2014 the SRA issued guidance to all practitioners instructing barristers on behalf of clients. The intention of the guidance was to remind practitioners of their professional duty to act in their client’s best interests and to highlight the role practitioners play in ensuring that barristers are able to fulfil their obligations (as set out above) to notify the client of their right to complain. The SRA state that since the introduction of these requirements, it has become aware that some clients are not being informed of their right to make a complaint about barristers. Although instructions to barristers often include client contact details, this is not always the case. Without these details, barristers are unable to fulfil their signposting requirements without further co-operation from the instructing practitioner.
Accordingly, the SRA expects the instructing practitioner to assist barristers so that they (i.e. the barrister) can be in a position to advise the client in writing of their right to complain about the service provided by the barrister. Alternatively, the solicitor should be satisfied that the client has been appropriately signposted. This expectation protects the interest of the client and helps to ensure that barristers are in a position to comply with their own obligations.
Further details can be found on the SRA web site at http://bit.ly/PYoFVg
As with solicitors, licensed conveyancers are now subject to outcomes-focused regulation.
Complaint handling is dealt with primarily in Overriding Principle 6 (Promote equality of access and service) of the Licensed Conveyancers Code of Conduct. This states that the licensed conveyancer:
These are then backed up by a number of principles and specific requirements, namely:
In addition the Council for Licensed Conveyancers provides a Complaints Code & Guidance which can be found on their web site – http://bit.ly/1jbSxtZ.
Patent Attorneys and Trade Mark Attorneys
Rule 12 of the Intellectual Property Regulation Board Code of Conduct deals with complaints handling by patent attorneys and trade mark attorneys. It provides that:
Note that complaints about professional misconduct will generally be handled by the Intellectual Property Regulation Board as opposed to the Legal Ombudsman.
Full details of the procedure relating to this will be found on the IPREG web site at http://bit.ly/1ji7pCL
In the next article we will look in more detail at the implementation of a complaint handling process.