You can make a complaint to the SLCC about a practitioner who did not act for you. An example of this would be making a complaint about a practitioner acting for the purchaser in a property transaction where you are the seller.
It is possible to make a complaint alleging inadequate professional service against a legal practitioner or firm who was not acting for you. We refer to this type of complaint as a "third party complaint."
We can investigate these complaints about inadequate professional service if you appear to have been directly affected by the inadequate professional service provided to the practitioner’s own client. Anyone can make a complaint alleging unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct. If you were not a client of the practitioner complained about, this complaint would also be classified as a "third party complaint".
Legal practitioners have a duty to act in the interests of their own clients and follow their own client’s instructions. This means that their primary duty of care is to their own client.
Practitioners are entitled to accept what their clients have told them at face value, unless they know that the information is false. There is no obligation on them to check the information provided.
Practitioners are also entitled to act upon the information and instructions given to them by their clients. This includes drafting and issuing letters.Provided there is nothing to suggest that the factual assertions made in the letters differ from the version of events provided by the practitioner’s client,issuing such letters wouldn’t amount to a breach of the professional standards. As mentioned above, practitioners are entitled to accept what their clients have told them at face value.
Although practitioners don’t have a general duty to correspond directly with third parties, when it comes to responding to complaints, practitioners should always respond, in so far as this does not breach their obligation to maintain their client’s confidentiality. Even if all the practitioner can say is that they are unable to provide a full response because they do not have their client’s permission to do so, some kind of response is required from them. The practitioner should also be signposting the complainer to the SLCC, if the complaint remains unresolved.
Whatever the complaint, we must be satisfied that the substance of the complaint has been made known to the practitioner and they’ve been given a reasonable opportunity to deal with it. This is a legal requirement and where this has not happened, we will usually regard the complaint as premature. This means that, even where the practitioner was not acting for you, you must still make your complaint directly to them or their firm and allow a period of at least 28 days for a response.
You may want to arrange for the practitioner’s response to be sent to your own solicitor, if you have one. You should be aware however that your own solicitor may charge you a fee for dealing with the complaint for you.
As mentioned before, a practitioner has a duty to respond to a third party’s initial letter of complaint, even if the response is limited to protect client confidentiality. You must allow at least 28 days to pass before submitting a complaint form to us - otherwise, your complaint form will usually be rejected as premature. We can only consider a complaint if it is on one of our complaint forms and the complaint form is signed (unless the form has been completed online). The signature is important because it gives us permission to seek information from other people, if necessary and to pass on details of your complaint to others who are involved in the complaints process, such as the investigating organisation or the practitioner.
For a third party complaint concerning inadequate professional service, we will only accept it if it is made:
- within one year of the alleged occurrence of the specific act or omission complained about if it occurred before 1st April 2017 OR;
- within three years of the alleged occurrence of the specific act or omission complained about, if it occurred on or after 1st April 2017.
We will only accept a complaint concerning unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct if it is made:
- within one year of the alleged occurrence of the conduct incident, if it occurred before 1st April 2017 OR;
- within three years of the alleged occurrence of the conduct incident, if it occurred on or after 1st April 2017 .
We will however disregard any time during which you were, in our opinion, excusably unaware of your concerns.
We can only accept a complaint outside of these time limits in exceptional circumstances or where there are circumstances that we consider it to be in the public interest to accept the complaint.
When we assess the eligibility of your third party service complaint, we must first consider whether you appear to have been directly affected by the alleged inadequate professional service. If you do not appear to have been directly affected, we will be unable to consider your complaint any further.
If your complaint is accepted as an eligible third party service complaint and proceeds to the investigation stage, the way in which we then investigate your complaint may seem slightly unusual. Firstly, we will consider whether there was any inadequate professional service to the practitioner’s own client. Only if we think that there was, do we then go on to consider to what extent this directly affected you (as a third party). If there is no evidence of inadequate professional service to the practitioner’s own client, we cannot consider the direct affect aspect any further.
It is important to note that when we receive a third party complaint, we will not be able to disclose any information to you that is confidential between the practitioner and their client - unless we are provided with authority to do so.This includes information about the instructions that the client has given to the practitioner. The SLCC has to, at all times, respect the confidentiality between the practitioner and their client. It is therefore quite normal that, as a third party, you will only ever receive a limited amount of information about the investigation into your complaint and the evidence which we used to investigate it.
Please see the examples of third party complaints below. These outline the factors that we will take into consideration in deciding whether or not these are eligible.
The complaint: I am a beneficiary in an estate. The firm of solicitors winding up the estate have stopped replying to my letters.
What we will consider: You are not a client of the firm. The firm's duty is to their own client, being the executor. If their own client has told them not to respond, they must follow these instructions. The SLCC will consider whether the firm received your correspondence, whether they took their client's instructions on it and whether they followed any such instructions. The SLCC will only consider whether you have been directly affected if we find that the firm has provided their own client with an inadequate professional service.
The complaint: The solicitor acting for my wife in respect of our divorce has delayed in responding to correspondence from my solicitor.
What we will consider: You are not a client of the solicitor. The solicitor's duty is to their own client, being your wife. The SLCC will consider whether the solicitor received your solicitor's correspondence and whether there was an undue delay in responding. The SLCC will investigate whether the solicitor sought instructions from their client, when these were received and what these were. The SLCC will only consider whether you have been directly affected if we find that the firm has provided their own client with an inadequate professional service.
The complaint: I received a letter from a solicitor accusing me of failing to pay a debt owed to their client. This money was not, in fact, due.
What we will consider: You are not a client of the solicitor. The solicitor's duty is to their own client. If their client had advised them a debt is due, they are entitled to accept this at face value. The SLCC will consider whether, in writing the letter, the solicitor was acting on their client's instructions and in line with information provided to them by their client.
If you would like further information or have any queries, please get in touch.