LeO: Tighter Time Limits, More Discretion

Practitioners should note important changes to the procedure around complaints about law firms and solicitors to the Legal Services Ombudsman (LeO).

It follows last year’s review to the LeO’s Scheme Rules - which has prompted a significant reduction in time limits and further changes. So what are the changes and how should solicitors and firms react?

What’s changing?

First, the range of those who can file a complaint with the LeO has been expanded. The LeO can now accept complaints from the following:

  • Individuals
  • Small businesses (if they are a micro-enterprise under the LeO Scheme Rules)
  • Charities, clubs, societies and associations
  • Trusts

While the majority of complaints will continue to come from clients, the additional classes reflect the fact that others may also have grounds to make a valid complaint but were previously unable to.

Complaints must always be handled in accordance with the code of conduct for solicitors. Firms are cautioned not to dismiss a complaint simply because the complainant cannot file a complaint to the LeO – they must still consider it.

Reduced time limit

Secondly, the time limits within which complaints are to be filed with the LeO have reduced. From 1 April, complaints must be made within ONE YEAR of the date of the act or omission; or within ONE YEAR of the client realised there was a concern with the act/omission.

Previously, complainants had six years from the date of the act/omission or three years of them realising there was a concern.

The 6-month time limit within which a complainant must refer their concerns to the LeO after receiving a firm’s final response is unchanged.

Greater discretion

Finally, two further changes to note:

  • The LeO can now decline to issue a formal Ombudsman decision after the investigator has given a case decision if neither party raise any substantive objection to the findings of that decision.
  • The specific circumstances in which the LeO has discretion to dismiss or discontinue a complaint has been expanded. For instance, it may dismiss a complaint if the complainant had ‘not suffered significant loss distress inconvenience or detriment’; or where it would otherwise require a disproportionate use of LeO resources.

What does this mean?

Clients care letters should by now have been updated to reflect the new time limits. Solicitors’ firms and freelancer solicitors who have not yet done so will welcome the suggested wording from the LeO, but should act immediately.

Further information that ought by now to have been updated might include your terms of business, information published online; and any standalone complaints policy or guidance.

However, it is unclear whether the new time limits apply to existing clients with an ‘old’ client care letter; and what rules will apply to new clients from 1 April who are sent a client letter that has not been amended.

Further, the LeO has advised that clients should be informed of the changes to the time limits - but it is unclear whether this includes all existing clients. However, the LeO operates with a reasonable level of flexibility and may exercise its discretion to accept a complaint outside of the new time limits if it is ‘fair and reasonable’ to do so.

Even so, a firm or freelance solicitor who has failed to update its client care letter in this regard could become the subject of a regulatory complaint.

The LeO guidance can be found here

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Posted on 31.03.23