Monday, January 14, 2008

Outgoing Legal Services Ombudsman may bring harmony to SLCC

The outgoing Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman, Jane Irvine, appointed recently as Chairman of the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission, may bring a slight touch of harmony to proceedings .... not if the lawyer membership have their way of course ...

The Scotsman reports :

Irvine brings stability to new commission


WE'VE known for more than a year that it was coming and now, at last, we know who is going to be running the new Scottish Legal Complaints Commission.

The appointment of Jane Irvine, the current Scottish Legal Services Ombudsman, as chairwoman of the new commission seems like a sensible move. From the profession's perspective, at least they know who they will be dealing with, and both can build on the existing relationships established since 2006.

Irvine's pragmatic and plain-speaking approach certainly appears to have earned her respect from the Law Society of Scotland and Faculty of Advocates. Along with commissioners – including lawyers Alan Paterson, David Smith, Margaret Scanlan and David Chaplin – Irvine should bring continuity and stability after a period of uncertainty about the new gateway for service complaints.

The focus can now firmly shift to ensuring there is a smooth transition – both for the profession and for the public – from the old to new complaints handling systems.

Certainly there are many logistical issues that need to be addressed before the commission opens for business in October.

For example, when exactly will the window shut on complaints being made under the existing system and open for the new one? What approach will the commission take in looking at historical cases?

Irvine needs to ensure the commission communicates early and effectively with the public and the profession to raise awareness of the new system and all the changes it will bring.

Even bigger challenges remain to be resolved, however, not least of which is how complaints about the legal service will be judged by the commission, when the Law Society of Scotland is still working on a new set of standards for the profession.

Last year, Irvine warned that the profession was being hampered by a "weak" code of conduct for solicitors, with a "patchwork" of rules and guidelines, "sprinkled with confusing exclusions".

The profession may yet risk having standards imposed upon it from the commission's rulings.

Also, will the commission be able to clearly distinguish between service and conduct issues? If this is not always possible, how will this fit with the Law Society of Scotland's own investigations into solicitors?

Many of these issues have already been flagged up by Irvine and Richard Smith, the commission's interim chief executive, who has been speaking to the profession about its role since last summer. Irvine may wish to use less slightly less bullish language than Smith, however, who once commented that the commission was holding out a hand to the profession with "a fist inside the glove".

To start with at least, the commission should enjoy a generous degree of public, and some professional, goodwill. Despite the Law Society of Scotland's repeated protestations about the tiny proportion of complaints arising from transactions, the new complaints gateway is being introduced in response increasing consumer frustration with the existing system.

It is worth remembering that solicitors are not always happy with the current system either, as Caroline Flanagan acknowledged during her presidency, when the Law Society of Scotland gave up trying to retain control of service complaints handling.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether the new system will be better than the old. It won't be a magic bullet, and it seems unlikely that most complaints will reach a different resolution just because the commission looks at the same set of facts.

But, as Irvine herself wrote when she presented her last annual report, there has been a "constant theme of lack of trust" in the Law Society of Scotland. "Clients simply do not believe an institutional members' body can deal with consumer complaints fairly," she said.

If the commission can provide greater transparency and clarity for all concerned, then that seems very much in the public's and the profession's interests.

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