Academic journal article Nottingham Law Journal

The Legal Ombudsman - Past, Present and Future

Academic journal article Nottingham Law Journal

The Legal Ombudsman - Past, Present and Future

Article excerpt

The Legal Ombudsman was established in 2010 to deal with all consumer complaints about legal services in England and Wales. It replaced both the Legal Services Ombudsman, which had operated since 1990, and the existing complaints mechanisms of the legal professional bodies. This article examines the background to establishing the Legal Ombudsman, describes its work, and assesses what the future holds for complaints in relation to legal services.


Before 2010, complaints about members of the legal profession were dealt with by a mixture of self-regulation, and statutory oversight. (1) The relevant legal professional bodies at the time dealt with complaints about their members. If complainants were dissatisfied with the outcome, they could refer the matter to the Office of the Legal Services Ombudsman, which was created by the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990. (2) The Legal Services Ombudsman itself was introduced to reform complaint handling by lawyers, bringing in a new approach as the legal profession was no longer to have ultimate control over complaints against its members. (3) At that time, the introduction of independent oversight to the internal mechanisms for dealing with complaints presented a challenge to the prevailing assumptions about the proper role of professional regulation. (4)

As well as marking a new system for complaint handling in the legal profession, it also introduced a new model for ombudsmen, by establishing a 'hybrid' ombudsman to deal with complaints. In 1990, the ombudsman model itself was a fairly novel method of dispute resolution, and the Legal Services Ombudsman was a novel departure from the established demarcation between private and public sector ombudsmen. At that time, ombudsmen with jurisdiction over private sector bodies (for example, banks, building societies, insurance companies) were non-statutory, set up by the relevant industries themselves. (5) Ombudsmen with jurisdiction over public services were creatures of statute, with the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Health Service Ombudsman, and Local Government Ombudsmen established by the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, National Health Services Reorganisation Act 1973, and the Local Government Act 1974 respectively. The Legal Services Ombudsman was a statutory, publicly-funded body sponsored by the (then) Lord Chancellor's Department, but with jurisdiction over legal professionals, which are private sector bodies.

As well as this novel 'hybrid' status, it also departed from the accepted role of ombudsmen. Unlike most ombudsmen schemes, which receive and investigate complaints, and recommend or direct a remedy if the complaint is justified, the main role of the Legal Services Ombudsman was to investigate the way a complaint about a lawyer had been handled by the relevant professional body. Although the Legal Services Ombudsman could also investigate the original complaint against the lawyer as part of this process, in practice in the vast majority of cases, the original complaint was not investigated. The Legal Services Ombudsman would review the professional body's process and decision, make a judgment about it, and then remit it back for reconsideration if the process was found to be unsatisfactory in some way. There was also the possibility of a financial remedy being paid by the professional body to compensate for the poor way it had handled the complaint, including actual loss, inconvenience and distress. In those cases where the original complaint had been investigated, awards could be made against the individual lawyer. Awards were not binding.

How effective was the Legal Services Ombudsman? It was certainly independent of the legal profession, standing outside of the self-regulatory mechanisms of the professional bodies. Consumers could therefore have some confidence that the system no longer involved lawyers investigating themselves. Indeed, in order to ensure independence from the profession, the Legal Services Ombudsman could not be a lawyer. …

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