Scotland’s independent body for complaints about lawyers has called on members of the public and legal professionals to work with it on shaping how legal disputes are handled.
The Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) today launched a consultation on its Operating Plan and budget for 2017/18 – this follows the launch last year of its strategy which sets out the priorities of the Commission up to June 2020.
It would like to hear from consumers and lawyers who have been involved in legal disputes and have ideas on how the process could be improved.
Increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of the complaints procedure will be a key focus of the consultation following a 12% rise in complaints against lawyers over the past year.
The SLCC received 1,132 complaints in total, with consumers seeking help with resolving issues in areas such as buying and selling houses, civil litigation, the execution of wills and trusts, and family law.
The total amount awarded or agreed on behalf of claimants (including compensation, rebates and refunds) between 1 July 2015 and 30 June 2016 was £324,400.
Coupled with the rise in demand for its services, the SLCC expects an increase in the number of appeals and litigation brought against it by the Law Society of Scotland following a court ruling of the Inner House of the Court of Session last year.
In order to cope with these twin pressures the SLCC is proposing a 12.5% rise in the levies paid by members of the legal professions to support SLCC’s work. For a solicitor in private practice that equates to an increase from £316 to £356, a rise of £40 – and applies to around half of those the levy is paid by. For other groups the rise, in cash terms, is much lower. For example, for advocates the rise is only £19 and for in-house lawyers only £12.
The funding will be used to recruit new case workers to handle the increase in complaints and to provide support for lawyers to help them understand the common causes of disputes in order to reduce the potential for complaints within their own practices. The SLCC will also continue to campaign for legislative reform, particularly in relation to legal complaints.
Neil Stevenson, CEO said, “We exist to ensure a fair deal for clients who may have been let down by legal professionals, but at the same time protect lawyers from spurious claims that may damage their reputation unfairly. We ended our most recent financial year on a positive note with many aspects of performance improvements and a much greater understanding among the public of how the SLCC can help them. However, complaints have been rising and uncertainty and risk has been created by the recent court ruling. We must focus on efficiency, and this is reflected in our consultation, but legal complaints are often complex, time-consuming, and parties and the courts are rightly demanding of the reasoning and decision making set out in our decisions. In the face of these pressures our previous approach of reducing our reserves to subsidise the levy can no longer be maintained, and that means in order to continue serving the public properly we have no choice but to increase it.”
Bill Brackenridge, SLCC Chair added, “It has been a hugely challenging year with a significant increase in complaints against lawyers and the ruling of the courts which changed a long-held understanding by the SLCC and the Law Society of Scotland as to how complaints should be managed. We have worked hard to minimise the impact on consumer and lawyers alike, and recognise that increased costs are in no-one’s interests. The Board considered all alternatives to increases; however, in the face of such unprecedented increases of workload and risks the SLCC faces we must consult on a budget and plan aimed at ensuring our core statutory functions can be delivered for the public and for the sector. Our hope is that by April, when we must finalise the budget in light of this consultation, there may be a lesser risk and uncertainty stemming from ongoing litigation and that we may be able to adjust budgets accordingly in relation to that area.”
Legislation sets out that the SLCC must consult each January, publish responses to the consultation in March, and lay a budget before the Scottish Parliament in April each year. The statute requires that the budget must be reasonably sufficient to cover expenditure. The draft Operating Plan and budget both cover the period 1 July 2017 to 30 June 2018
The consultation is open until 13th March.