Complaints to Legal Services Chief Ombudsman Adam Sampson rose in several areas including residential conveyancing.
Whilst a few cases highlighted deliberate dishonesty, this was not the norm. The transformation of the legal services market was seen as a bigger factor in creating problems.
Mr Sampson highlighted the increasing commoditisation of the market, with legal services being broken down into individual transactions, which may be carried out by less qualified individuals or computers.
He cited conveyancing as an example of this and said: “It would be wrong to argue against such developments, which have huge potential benefits for consumers.
“However, commoditisation carries with it a degree of risk.
“First, if commoditised services are to rely upon the use of automated computer systems, they have to ensure that the systems on which they are relying are truly error-free.
“Sadly, our experience is that this is not always the case.”
Mr Sampson said that firms have to be careful to recognise cases that depart from the norm and deal with these appropriately.
He also said that the use of less qualified individuals and computerised systems could: “Create the risk that at key points the service they receive falls short of what they could reasonably expect.” He cited the case of Mr J which can be seen below.
Out of 75,000 enquiries received by the ombudsman 8,400 cases required a full investigation.
The overall level of enquiries was reduced, perhaps due to the financial crisis, but a higher than expected volume of cases required an ombudsman’s decision.
Complaints relating to residential conveyancing accounted for 15% of those requiring an ombudsman’s decision.
Mr J and his wife approached a firm of will writers and estate planners to prepare wills and trust documents for them. He paid them nearly £3,000 for the work. When he received the documents, Mr J saw that they were incomplete, poorly typed and contained inaccuracies. Mr J complained. The firm offered him compensation but would not return his money. It was then he learned that the firm he employed had outsourced the work to another firm. Mr J duly complained to that firm and then to us.
At first it looked as though we might be able to help Mr J but it became clear that his case was outside our jurisdiction: even though both firms provided ‘legal services’ no lawyers were actually involved. The second firm did employ a solicitor but he hadn’t worked on or even supervised Mr J’s documents. They had been drafted by an administrator using the information Mr J provided and legal software produced by yet another related company.
Regrettably, there was nothing we could do for Mr J. All that we could suggest was that he pursues a complaint with the trade association the first firm belonged to and consider taking the compensation that they had offered him.
Mr J’s case illustrates the difficulties that consumers face, not only when business structures and computerisation mean that there is no one obviously responsible for service failings but also when there is no transparent and effective means of redress.