Managing Complaints – Part III

Managing Complaints – Part III

Putting in Place a Complaint Policy

Introduction

In part one of this series of three articles dealing with complaint handling we looked 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. Part two looked at the kind of steps that firms should be taking in order to implement a system.  Here in part three we look at the practical steps to be taken and finish off with a draft policy that firms can adapt to their own requirements.

The SRA Requirements

The SRA Code of Conduct 2011 provides at Outcomes O(1.9), O(1.10) and O(1.11) that:

  • O(1.9) – clients are informed in writing at the outset of their matter of their right to complain and how complaints can be made;
  • O(1.10) – clients are informed in writing, both at the time of engagement and at the conclusion of your complaints procedure, of their right to complain to the Legal Ombudsman, the time frame for doing so and full details of how to contact the Legal Ombudsman; and
  • O(1.11) – clients’  complaints are dealt with promptly, fairly, openly and effectively;

Whilst indicative behaviours IB(1.22), IB(1.23) and IB(1.24)  provide that this will be evidenced by:

  • The firm having a written complaints procedure which:
    1. is brought to clients’ attention at the outset of the matter,
    2. is easy for clients to use and understand, allowing for complaints to be made by any reasonable means,
    3. is responsive to the needs of individual clients, especially those who are vulnerable,
    4. enables complaints to be dealt with promptly and fairly, with decisions based on a sufficient investigation of the circumstances,
    5. provides for appropriate remedies; and
    6. does not involve any charges to clients for handling their complaints.
  • Providing the client with a copy of the firm’s complaints procedure on request; and
  • In the event that a client makes a complaint, providing them with all necessary information concerning the handling of the complaint.

Similar requirements will apply to law firms regulated by other regulators (see part one of this series of articles).

Responsibility for the system

At the heart of any complaint handling system are people and so it is essential that clients are made to feel that their complaint is being taken seriously and that there is someone to whom they can turn within the firm as a last resort. Whilst it is not a compulsory feature of a complaint handling system so far as the SRA Code of Conduct is concerned, nevertheless having someone with ultimate responsibility will be seen by the SRA as good risk management practice.

However, as we have said earlier, complaints should not be about last resorts and everyone within the firm – be they fee earners or support staff, should be aware of and understand fully the process for handling complaints process and how they fit within that process. Bear in mind that wherever possible complaints should be dealt with whilst they are still minor niggles and that not every complaint needs to be part of a formal complaint handling process.  Often a simple apology will be enough or, if nothing has been done wrong, an explanation of why that which was done was correct.  Often complaints arise from simple misunderstandings.

The person with ultimate responsibility for complaints should always be a senior person within the firm – for example a partner or director.  It is they who should take up the complaint when more direct action by the staff member handling the matter has not proved effective.  The firm will need to ensure that everyone in the firm is aware as to when it is appropriate that the “complaint partner” (for want of a better term) should be brought into a matter.  It is also good practice to ensure that the client is aware at the outset of the transaction of whom they can take a compliant in the event that it is not able to be resolved by the person handling the matter – or in larger firms their line manager.

Having a clear and understandable process

The next practical step is to set up a clear and understandable process for the handling of complaints.

Ensure that there is a clear and simple process by which complaints can be received and, that having been received, that they are considered, understood and that opportunities for dealing with them less formally are made available. Ensure that staff are trained as to how to receive a complaint by phone, for example, including how to deal politely with them, how to tease out the precise nature of the complaint and how to explain the process where necessary.  Bear in mind at all times that not all clients have a similar level of understanding.

If it is possible for the clients complaint to be handled quickly and easily – then this should always be done – for example providing them with information, writing them a letter or chasing up others involved in a transaction.  However, this will not always be possible.

In these cases then the client should be sent an acknowledgement of the fact that the complaint has been made (within two days of the compliant being made) setting out the firms understanding of the complaint and what the next step in the process is, the time limits within which the firm will respond at various stages and wherever possible an explanation of what is being done to address the complaint.  The client should also be reassured that, as is provided in indicative behaviour IB (1.22), there will be no charge for dealing with a complaint.

Where the compliant cannot be dealt with quickly and easily, then the firm will need to investigate it – ideally using an independent person (i.e. someone other than the person involved in the complaint) wherever possible.  That person should look into the complaint in detail (keeping the client informed wherever appropriate),  record the results of their investigations and then respond to the client within eight weeks. Failure to respond to a complaint within this timeframe will mean that the client  can take their complaint to the Legal Ombudsman.

Responding appropriately

In all cases the firm should ensure that it responds in an easy to understand way which not only sets out the decision the firm has come to but also how it arrived at that decision.

If the result of the investigation is that the firm had done nothing wrong then the reasons why it has reached this decision should be explained fully.

If, however, the result of the investigation is that the firm was at fault then the response might also include what the firm plans to offer by way of a remedy.  This could include one or more of the following:

  • an apology;
  • compensation for loss suffered;
  • compensation for inconvenience, distress or both;
  • an offer to put things right;
  • a reduction in a bill.

The firm must also make sure that the client is aware at the end of the complaint process of their rights to take the matter to the Legal Ombudsman if they are still dissatisfied and as to how to contact them.

Do bear in mind when responding that whilst an apology might be a good way of dealing with a minor matter – and indeed may be sufficient to prevent it from becoming a major matter – if the complained of actions could amount to negligence then that apology could be taken as an admission of liability, which could have implications for your professional indemnity insurance.

The client who does not accept the answer

Despite your best efforts at dealing with a matter, however, there will be clients who refuse to accept your analysis of the situation.

Those clients have, of course, the option of taking the matter to the Legal Ombudsman.  However some, including those who have gone to the Ombudsman, may try and engage your firm in continuing correspondence.  In the event that this does occur, you should take the following steps:

  • Satisfy yourselves that the matter has been fully investigated and that all necessary steps have been taken
  • Consider any remedies offered and be satisfied that they are appropriate in the circumstances
  • Check that the matter has been explained to the client in clear terms that the client is able to understand;
  • Write to them one final time:
    • providing them with an overview of the complaint,
    • giving details of the steps you have taken to investigate it,
    • providing a summary of the decision you reached,
    • providing a summary of the remedies if any that you are offering them,
    • informing them that unless there is any further evidence to support their complaint that you will not correspond with them further, and
    • in the event that new evidence comes to light you will contact them.

Once you have done this, you may cease corresponding with them.

Recording Complaints

It is essential that you keep comprehensive records of the complaints that are made to your firm.  The Ombudsman, for example, may wish to review the steps that you have taken to resolve them if a matter is taken to them and the SRA may require the records as part of the renewal process.

In addition to recording complaints, you may also need to show that you have analysed the complaints made and, from a risk perspective, taken steps to ensure that the problems complained of cannot arise again.   This you can do by:

  • looking at the nature of the complaints made and whether they show a trend,
  • if a trend is apparent, can it be addressed by amending other procedures within the firm,
  • if a trend is apparent, is it attributable to a particular department, group of people or individual – if so can steps be taken such as training or disciplinary measures to remedy the problem
  • working out whether the problem lies in the way in which minor grievances are being dealt with.

Remember what was said in an earlier part of this series of articles – that a complaint can be an opportunity to put right something which is wrong with the firm.

Draft Complaint Policy

The following draft policy can be adapted by you to suit the needs of your practice. It has been written to take account of the needs of different types and sizes of practice and addresses complaint policies for solicitors, legal executives and licensed conveyancers.

Simply insert the name of your firm wherever you see (Firm Name) . Optional paragraphs that you may wish to omit are shown in [square brackets]. Where there is a choice of wording it is shown with {curly brackets}. Instructions are shown in red and should be deleted after you have personalised the policy.

(Firm Name)

Complaints Policy for Clients

At (Firm Name), our quality of service is very important to us. For that reason we like to ensure that at all stages of any transaction you are happy with the service which you receive from us.

Whilst we hope you will never need to complain about our service, we acknowledge that from time to time things can go wrong or that there can be a breakdown in communications. Should this occur we would like you to bring the problem to our attention as soon as possible and we will take steps to try and deal with it as quickly and effectively as possible.

What to do if you have a complaint
If you are unhappy with any aspect of the service which you have received from us, then the starting point is to contact us and provide us with details of the problem. This should be within six months of the matter giving rise to the complaint or within six months following the conclusion of the work, whichever is the later.

If the complaint is complicated then we would prefer you to supply us with details in writing. However, if you are not happy doing this, or would like to discuss the matter with us first, you can call at our offices, telephone us or email us.

Delete the following two paragraphs if they are not relevant. This might be if you are a sole practitioner or there is no one else in your firm to whom a complaint could be addressed. Select the most appropriate option from the alternative wording.

[If you would like to discuss the matter with someone other than the lawyer who dealt with your matter, then you can ask to speak with or write to {his or her supervisor}{our complaints partner/manager/director}{our client care partner/manager/director}{our senior partner/manager/director}{our managing partner/chief executive} who will be happy to try and resolve the issue for you]

[If you have any doubts as to who you should contact then please check the client care letter that we sent to you when we first started to act for you. If you no longer have this letter, or if the person named in the letter is not available, then if you telephone us we will be happy to tell you to whom you should address your complaint.]

What will happen next?
After you have contacted us we will write to you within {two}{three} working days acknowledging your complaint and sending to you a further copy of this policy.  At that time we will tell you  who will be looking into your complaint and, where you have spoken with us rather than writing to us, setting out the nature of the complaint you have made. [Your complaint will be recorded and the {complaints partner/manager/director }{client care partner/manager/director }{senior partner}{managing partner} will be informed.]

Having received your complaint, we will then take steps to look into it. This will involve:

  • reviewing your complaint,
  • where appropriate looking at your file(s) and other documents,
  • [speaking with the person who acted for you,]
  • taking any other necessary steps.

After we have looked into the matter
Once we have looked into the matter for you, we will write to you.  This will usually be within  {10}{15} working days of the letter acknowledging the complaint. If appropriate we will discuss with you any proposals for resolving the matter or we may  invite you to a meeting where we can discuss the complaint with you and provide you with an explanation.

If you would prefer not to attend a meeting, or if it is not practical for you to attend a meeting, we will be happy to write to you setting out an explanation in a letter and any proposals for resolving the matter. You may, if you wish, also telephone us about this or send us an email or ask that we telephone you. This letter will normally be sent to you within {15}{20} working days of the letter acknowledging the complaint.

In the event that you attend a meeting, or discuss the matter with us by telephone, we will write to you confirming the {meeting}{conversation} and any proposals for resolving the matter. This will usually be within {3}{5} working days of the meeting or conversation.

What if you are not happy with the outcome?
If you are unhappy with the outcome of your complaint, or if you feel that there are factors which we have not taken into account, you may contact us again, either in person, by telephone or in writing and we will arrange:

Select from below as appropriate to your firm

  • [to look at the matter again]
  • [for another {person}{partner/manager/director } in the firm to look at the matter again]
  • [for someone who is not connected with the firm to look at the matter]
  • [for someone from another firm to look at the matter]

Once the matter has been reviewed we will then write to you within {10}{15} working days setting out our position and, if appropriate, any proposals for resolving the matter.

If you are not happy with this further explanation, or if our proposals are not adequate, then you may take the matter further by contacting the Legal Ombudsman. You can contact the Legal Ombudsman by:

  • Writing to Legal Ombudsman, PO Box 6806, Wolverhampton, WV1 9WJ
  • Downloading the online form at www.legalombudsman.org.uk/consumer/
  • Phoning 0300 555 0333, or
  • emailing enquiries@legalombudsman.org.uk

Please note that you must make contact with the Legal Ombudsman:

  • within six months of the final response from us to your complaint, or
  • within twelve months of the date when either the unsatisfactory conduct took place or you became aware of the problem.

When you contact the Legal Ombudsman they will need you and your lawyer to provide information about the steps that have been taken to resolve the complaint before it reached them . Keep copies of any written correspondence as well as any notes you might have made on what happened and when. It will also help if you have:

  • the name and address of the lawyer or law firm involved
  • the date you first told them about your complaint
  • the date you first became aware of the problem you are complaining to them about
  • details of the response you received from them. The Legal Complaints Service prefer those with a complaint to try to resolve it with the firm of solicitors in the first instance.
    When you contact the Legal Complaints Service you need to send them copies of all relevant documents.

Select which of the following is appropriate to you.

Solicitors

You will find more information about how to make a complaint on the Solicitors Regulation Authority web site at http://www.sra.org.uk/consumers/problems.page

Licensed Conveyancer

You will find more information about how to make a complaint on Council for Licensed Conveyancers web site at http://www.conveyancer.org.uk/consumers.php

Chartered Legal Executives

You will find more information about how to make a complaint on the ILEX Professional Standards web site at http://www.ilex.org.uk/ips/ips_home/for_consumers/how_to_complain.aspx

Barristers

You will find more information about how to make a complaint on the Bar Standards Board Web Site at https://www.barstandardsboard.org.uk/complaints-and-professional-conduct/

Patent Attorneys and Trade Mark Attorneys

You will find more information about how to make a complaint on the Intellectual Property Regulation Board web site at http://ipreg.org.uk/public/what-to-do-when-things-go-wrong/

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