It's the consumer, stupid
Posted on June 27, 2012 by Louise Restell
As you can imagine, calls for non-clients to have the right to complain about lawyers have gone down like a ton of bricks in some quarters. Apparently it will open the door to a flood of vexatious complaints from people unhappy they lost their case or who think their opponent’s lawyer was a bit rude or unpleasant. Worse still, it is being proposed by ‘quangocrats’ who have ‘no idea of the reality of legal practice’.
There seems to be something of a bunker mentality developing, or in some cases already fully developed, among lawyers who think they are constantly under attack from non lawyers who really don’t understand what it’s like being a lawyer, how the law works or how important it is that nothing at all ever changes.
I, of course, fall into this category, having been accused of being a ‘PR consultant’ on the 'quango gravy train' (even though I am not doing any PR work for any quangos). What this misses, however, is that I am, in fact, exactly the sort of person lawyers should be winning over. Not because I write a blog that a few (yes I’ve counted them) people read, but precisely because I am not a lawyer and will, at some point I am sure, be a consumer of legal services.
In this capacity, it seems quite insane to me that I am unable to complain about a lawyer who has had a significant impact on a key area of my life just because I didn’t appoint them. We are not talking about spurious issues here. It could be that legal work carried out on my remortgage wasn’t up to scratch, but I can’t complain because it was my lender and not me who instructed them.
It is surely a nonsense that someone cannot complain about the solicitors who dealt with a grant of probate because their relationship was with an unregulated estate administration company that had subcontracted the solicitors. Just as ridiculous is that beneficiaries can complain about poor service by lawyers dealing with an estate but those same people can’t complain about losing their inheritance because the will was poorly drafted.
In both cases, as far as I am concerned, a lawyer is responsible and it seems grossly unfair that I can’t complain due to a technicality in the rules. This leaves the only remedy available going to court, which I almost certainly can’t afford to do. This rather undermines the whole point of having an ombudsman in the first place, which I guess is the point for the lawyers who continue to rail against the whole system of legal regulation.
As if adding fuel to the fire, the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) also wants to increase the amount of compensation it can award from £30,000 to £50,000 and extend the one-year time limit for making complaints to six years, or three years from knowledge of the event. All popular moves with lawyers and, indeed, the Law Society.
That last bit is not true, obviously. But unless I have misunderstood, the LeO only wants to have the ability to award more, not do it in every case just to annoy the profession; and it wants to extend the time limit to harmonise it with the courts (where I believe lawyers do quite a lot of their work) and other ombudsman schemes, which may be particularly relevant to alternative business structures (ABS).
Although I forget, ABS are a bad idea too and will only lead to consumers getting cheap and shoddy legal advice and put all the good lawyers out of business. Ah well, we reap what we sow, serves us all right really.
If you hadn’t yet realised, I am a bit cross. Cross that lawyers still have the attitude that they know best about everything and that anyone who suggests they do something different is unqualified and unimportant. Cross that the views of consumers, who pay them and keep them in an on-the-whole-very-nice living thank you, don’t count for anything. And cross that lawyers think consumers are too stupid to know when they have a legitimate complaint or so fraudulent they’d make a vexatious one at the drop of a hat.
Now I’ve got that off my chest I would like to clarify that I don’t hate lawyers. I think most of you do a fantastic job, in many cases a job I would neither want nor have the ability to do. I admire how many years you study and beaver away to get your qualification and how you stick single-mindedly to a career path. And I wish I had the knowledge you do to understand the law and campaign for change.
I also love that you uphold the rule of law and work to ensure justice is done. I am envious that many of you help the disadvantaged, disenfranchised and desperate to have a voice and challenge the injustice and unfairness that causes their distress. I even have friends who are lawyers.
But the very qualities that make you good at all that stuff sometimes mean you are not so good at the softer, touchy-feely stuff that consumers have come to expect in vital services or services they are paying for and which they can, and will, use to judge their experience.
We do understand that you can’t necessarily always predict the cost of a case, but give it your best shot and keep me informed if it changes.
We realise you will use lots of legal terms we don’t understand, but take a bit of time to explain them to me and don’t make me feel an idiot.
We know you are busy with lots of other clients, but please return my call and explain what’s going on with my case.
We know you might not be able to get all, or any, of the outcome we want from our case, but if you go through all the possibilities and risks at the outset and prepare me properly I will probably forgive you.
And that, in a nutshell, is all it takes if you don’t want me to complain to the ombudsman.