If your solicitor has not returned your calls and letters, presented you with an unexpectedly large bill, or not done what you asked them to do, then you may have a legitimate complaint.
These are just a few scenarios, and there are many others. In fact, thousands of complaints are made against solicitors each year, although not all of them stand up to scrutiny. Many solicitors will have acted perfectly reasonably.
Whatever your cause for grumble, there are plenty of safeguards in place to protect clients.
Solicitors are bound by professional rules of conduct, and are strictly regulated in England and Wales by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Clients can expect a good standard of service and sound legal advice. If not, there are procedures in place to hold the solicitor to account.
All solicitors in England and Wales (and Scotland, although the training and regulatory requirements north of the border are separate) will have undertaken years of rigorous training before qualifying to practise. Once qualified, they must continue to undertake a minimum of educational and training courses each year, and their obligations do not stop there.
Solicitors owe certain professional duties to their clients, and also to the courts and to third parties. In their professional dealings, they must follow a guide to ‘good practice’ known as the Solicitors Code of Conduct. They must respect certain professional ethics—for example, they should not bring the profession into disrepute, they should act in the best interests of their client, and they should not act where there is a conflict of interest.
If you are dissatisfied with the service you receive, then you can report your concerns to the Legal Complaints Service, which may refer your complaint to the Solicitors Regulation Authority for further investigation. You may be eligible for compensation. If your solicitor has been negligent, then you may also be able to sue your solicitor for compensation separately, through the courts.
Your solicitor is negligent if he or she has failed to take the reasonable care that a solicitor would normally have taken in similar circumstances.
To non-lawyers, this may seem rather vague. However, ‘professional negligence’ is a legal concept. Ultimately, a court or tribunal may decide whether, on the basis of the evidence in front of it, a solicitor has been negligent. Usually, an allegation of negligence will be resolved one way or another before it reaches that stage.
A solicitor could be negligent if, for example, he or she missed a crucial deadline which means your claim fails, or if they advise you that you cannot make a claim when in fact you can, or that you cannot receive funding for a claim when in fact you can.
If you believe your solicitor has been negligent then you should seek independent legal advice as soon as possible, because time limits apply to any legal action you may bring. The Legal Complaints Service (LCS) will be able to refer you to a specialist in professional negligence who can handle your case.
There are many solicitors who specialise in professional negligence cases. They have expertise in what is involved, and will be able to advise you further on potential courses of action and likely outcomes. They usually offer the first hour of advice free of charge, after which you can decide whether to proceed or not.
There is a difference between ‘poor service’ and ‘negligence’. If your complaint is about poor service not negligence, then the LCS will handle your concerns.
The LCS may investigate your complaint, or refer it to the Solicitors Regulation Authority.
You may, in addition to this, be able to sue your solicitor in the courts. Or, you may be able to reach settlement with your original solicitor’s insurers.
The first thing you should do is complain to your solicitor about the service you have received. You are best to do this in writing, and to make sure you date your letter and keep copies. This means there is written evidence of your complaint, and your solicitor’s response.
All firms of solicitors should have a system for dealing with complaints, for example, a designated ‘complaints handling’ partner at the firm. They should respond within a reasonable time, say 28 days. The LCS has set up a helpline for people who need help contacting their solicitor. It is 0845 608 6565.
If this does not resolve your complaint, then the next stage is to send your complaint to the LCS. This is a free, confidential and independent branch of the Law Society.
You can email, post or telephone the LCS on the above number. It has a website at www.legalcomplaints.org.uk. You must do this within six months of the date your received your response from your solicitor or, if there is no response, within six months of finding out there was a problem. This timescale is shorter—three months, or one month where your solicitor has pre-warned you—where you are complaining about your legal bill.
Once your complaint has been lodged, the LCS will look into your complaint. It may uphold your complaint, and ask your solicitor to pay you up to £15,000 compensation.
However, the LCS cannot investigate allegations of professional misconduct. It will therefore refer any such complaint to the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which will conduct an investigation. Compensation of up to £1 million is available for cases of professional misconduct.
If you are unhappy with the LCS’ treatment of your complaint, then you can ask the Legal Services Ombudsman to consider your case.
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