Which? Press Release 2004
Which? Press Release 2005
Which? Press Release 2006
Which? Legal Services Reform
consultation response 2006
Arrogant, incompetent, negligent and unprofessional... just some of the things
said about solicitors in our survey of complaints against them
Last year there were a massive 16,085 complaints to the Office for the
Supervision of Solicitors (OSS) - the complaints handling body of the Law
Society of England and Wales. Disturbingly, that's equivalent to around one
complaint for every five solicitors.
Other parts of the UK fared better. The Law Society for Northern Ireland
received the equivalent of one complaint for every six solicitors during the
same period, and the Law Society of Scotland, one for every eight.
We investigated what's behind these complaints by seeking the views of more than
340 people who felt their solicitor had given them poor service.
Last January, we placed ads in the national press asking people who felt they'd
had shoddy service from a solicitor in the last three years to contact us. We
sent 700 questionnaires and received details of 348 cases from 343 people.
Almost all the respondents live in England or Wales - ten were from Scotland and
three from Northern Ireland. As a result, our investigation focuses almost
entirely on the situation in England and Wales.
The results of our survey make depressing reading. Many of those who contacted
us described their solicitors as arrogant, contemptuous, patronising or rude.
And almost 40 per cent of the people felt they weren't treated with respect.
Shocking indeed, but perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised that some solicitors
have this attitude to their clients. Only last year, a former Law Society
President, Michael Mears, wrote: 'The OSS operates on the basis of the fiction
that the vast majority of its customers are worthy citizens... great numbers of
[them], however, are typical Mr and Mrs Modern Brit, whingers and grievance
mongers whose primary object in making a complaint is to avoid paying the bill.'
Taking legal action can be a drawn-out and complicated process. It can also be
very distressing because of the sorts of issue that are often involved - for
example, marriage breakdown, bereavement or injury. At the very least, it's
reasonable to expect your solicitor to keep you well informed and to treat you
in a courteous and professional manner. Unfortunately, we've found that this is
sometimes very far from the case.
Complaints about excessive delays, negligence, serious mistakes and
unprofessional behaviour were common. But perhaps worse than this, in many cases
these solicitors seemed to be paying little regard to their own professional
rules of conduct.
Counting the Cost
Few people would hire a builder without getting an estimate of the time and
costs involved first. Yet the majority of our respondents claimed they were
given neither by their solicitor. Nor were many of them told that they might
have to pay the other side's costs if they lost.
In fact, solicitors' practice rules expect them to meet certain standards of
client care. These include giving this type of information to their clients at
the start of the case. Half of our respondents who paid privately said they were
not given an estimate upfront (this isn't always required for legal aid cases).
A few told us that the solicitor refused point blank: 'She refused to estimate
costs even after three or four requests.'
What's more, almost half the respondents who did get an estimate found that
their final bill was actually higher, and only 3 per cent said it was lower. In
a couple of cases, it was so much higher that the people couldn't afford to
continue: 'His estimate... was £4,000 to £5,000. In the event the fees were in
excess of £30,000... after two years we could no longer afford to fund the
What's going on?
Almost three-quarters of our respondents said they weren't told how long the
case was likely to take - and 60 per cent of those who were given an estimate
found that it actually took longer. In fact, delays were the most common gripe,
with 73 per cent of all who replied feeling that the delays were excessive.
There may well have been good reasons for these delays, but in many cases
finding out what was going on was far from easy. Solicitors should keep their
clients regularly informed about progress and costs. But over half of our
respondents said they weren't kept informed about the progress of their case,
and they received no reply to letters or phone calls.
Solicitors With An Attitude
Lack of common courtesy was a disturbingly common complaint. Almost 40 per cent
felt they weren't treated with respect. Many people described their solicitor's
attitude as arrogant, contemptuous, patronising or condescending. Others felt
the solicitor wasn't really on their side - they were often belligerent,
bullying and hostile, or indifferent, disregarding and uninterested. One person
said: 'His attitude was arrogant and very patronising', and another: 'The
solicitor seemed to assume...I would not be able to follow legal detail... a
definite air of superiority, difficult to cope with when you've just suffered a
Although respondents from all types of background found that solicitors had
similar attitudes, some of those on legal aid felt that this affected their
treatment: 'I have found solicitors to be condescending, treating you as an
imbecile and/or a nuisance. There seems to be much blackmail and pressure not to
bother them, and being on legal aid means you're scared to upset them... they
can get it withdrawn if they are so minded.'
Your solicitor is paid to represent your interests, so you'd expect them to do
the job properly. But 58 per cent of our respondents claimed that their
solicitor had made mistakes. These were often in legal documents and ranged from
spelling, grammar and typing mistakes to errors in accounts. Sometimes their
mistakes had serious consequences for the client. Two-thirds of people
complained that their solicitor had been negligent: 'The claim form filled in by
a junior was full of inaccuracies... the court documents prepared by a junior
were returned by the judge as unacceptable', said one person.
Another told us: 'There were many factual and arithmetical errors which all
worked to the advantage of the opposition.' And: 'They made several legal errors
in dealing with my mother's will and property... they tried to cover up in an
extraordinary way' [by refusing to hand over the deeds]. I'll never trust a
Almost a quarter of our respondents told us that their solicitor had lost
documents relating to their case. These included notes, letters, witness
statements, wills, medical records and, in some cases, whole files. Again, these
can have serious consequences: 'The solicitor lost the will. We now owe enormous
sums in interest to the Inland Revenue.'
Solicitors' rules say that all new clients should be told at the outset at least
the name of the person they can approach if they have a complaint. But, almost
three-quarters of respondents who were new to the solicitors' practice said they
weren't told about the procedure.
Complaining to the practice
Just over half of the people complained to their solicitor or their solicitor's
practice; 7 per cent of them felt their complaint was resolved satisfactorily,
but 70 per cent didn't. In fact, more than four out of five of them were very
dissatisfied with the way their complaint was handled.
The reasons they gave followed certain themes. There was a strong feeling that
the solicitors closed ranks: 'I feel they all cover up for each other and the
way they carry out their investigation is a total sham.' The complaints officer
was sometimes the solicitor they were complaining about, and some people felt
this meant they weren't getting an impartial opinion. Many people got no
response at all, or said their complaint was rebuffed: 'I received no response
Some felt it was the solicitor's word against theirs. If the solicitor denied
the problem, there was nothing they could do. But some thought that even when
they had proof, this was ignored. Others told us they received threats - for
example, that fees would be increased or the lawyer would stop representing
them. 'The threat of a review of charges made me reluctant to go any further',
said one. 'They tried to bully me with legal action for daring to complain,'
commented another. 'When I complained... at first I was pushed aside and
threatened with withdrawal of their services,' said a third.
Why some didn't complain
Forty-three per cent of our respondents decided not to complain. The main reason
(given by 44 per cent) was that they felt there wasn't any point: 'It's a waste
of time complaining about solicitors.' Over a third thought they would find it
too stressful and upsetting: 'It would have cost a lot of money to prove our
point. My wife suffers from MS and I couldn't put her through any more stress.'
Despite the fact that they should have been told who to complain to at the
start, a quarter of those who didn't complain said this was because they didn't
know how. 'When I was unhappy about the service, I didn't know how to complain
or get help,' said one. 'They've got away with it and I don't see any form of
recourse available to me,' said another.
Particularly worrying was that a few people were nervous about complaining
because they felt the solicitor could threaten to withdraw their services or
legal aid. Some felt they were not in a position to make a difference once
problems occurred, because of a lack of time and money. Another said the
solicitor knew they didn't have enough money to sue him.
There were a couple of happy endings, though. One person was satisfied, and
another very satisfied, with the way their complaints were handled.
Not surprisingly, the OSS is having serious problems dealing with a huge backlog
of complaints. Last January, the government warned that if the OSS failed to
meet tough new targets, it may remove solicitors' right to self-regulation. It
also called for improvements in client care to reduce the need for recourse to
the OSS in the first place. Ann Abraham, the Legal Services Ombudsman (LSO) for
England and Wales, is responsible for investigating complaints against the OSS.
Earlier this year she said that, despite some improvements, the 'gap between the
attitudes and behaviour of lawyers and the public's legitimate expectations of
them is as wide as ever'. She said she comes across very few people who could be
labelled 'professional complainers'. 'What we do see are many, many people who
have been poorly served by lawyers.' In the past ten years, her office has had
complaints about 60 per cent of solicitors' firms.
She highlighted the need for a culture change within the profession and stressed
that any lasting progress will depend on the Law Society managing to persuade
solicitors to adopt a more client-focused approach.
At long last, it seems that the Law Society has been taking steps to modernise
itself. It recognises that the service offered by some solicitors falls below
what the public is entitled to expect. It has put together a strategy to tackle
the problem, which includes setting up a Practice Standards Unit whose main
focus will be to ensure solicitors comply with the profession's client care
rules. Firms will be given a risk-rating, and those with a low score will be
monitored and may be told to take remedial measures. Failure to comply could
lead to disciplinary action.
The good news is that complaints against solicitors have dropped by 6 per cent
over the last year, and the OSS is meeting some of the government's targets.
However, the LSO's level of satisfaction with the way the OSS handles complaints
continues to decline.
How to Complain
If you're unhappy with your solicitor's service, you should write to the
solicitor first. They may be able to put things right without need for any
further action. If this doesn't help, make a formal complaint, in writing, to
the partner responsible for complaints. If you're unhappy with the response, you
should contact the OSS (England and Wales), the Law Society of Scotland or the
Law Society of Northern Ireland, depending on where your solicitor is based.
However, these organisations can't pursue claims for professional negligence. If
you think you have a claim for negligence (because you suffered financial loss
due to your solicitor's actions), you'll need to get legal advice.
If you are still unhappy with the way your complaint has been handled, you can
complain to the relevant Legal Services Ombudsman for England and Wales or
Scotland, or to the Lay Observer for Northern Ireland.
While the majority of solicitors may well be providing their clients with a
thoroughly professional service, it's clear that many are failing miserably. In
fact, the problem could be even more widespread than the Office for the
Supervision of Solicitors' (OSS) figures suggest, because despite being very
dissatisfied with their solicitors, barely a third of our respondents had
complained to the OSS.
We welcome the Law Society's recent initiatives, but it's yet to be seen how
effective they will be in practice. As our research shows, many solicitors are
currently failing even to comply with their existing practice rules. It will
take significant culture change for these solicitors to start putting their
clients' needs first. The Law Society has a huge challenge on its hands, not
least because it still has some prominent members who are outspoken in their
opposition to reform.
The Case of the Missing Claim
When it came to light that Sharron Fox's teenage sons had been sexually abused
since the ages of three and five, she engaged Gartons solicitors of Wakefield to
represent them. The youngest boy had been psychologically damaged by the abuse
and had since been in trouble with the police. The abusers were convicted and
Sharron was told her sons were entitled to compensation. She says they were told
that the older boy could be entitled to around £6,000 and the younger to around
£40,000 because of the disabilities he'd suffered as a result of the abuse.
After many months of asking Gartons how the claim was progressing, Sharron
contacted the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board herself, and was told they
had no record of her younger son's case. It turned out that Gartons had not
filed the claim at all and it was now too late. Gartons then denied ever having
agreed to submit the claim. However, the files were subsequently found and
Sharron engaged another solicitor, and issued proceedings against Gartons for
negligence. Although she had been told it was possible that her son could get a
lot more, she finally settled for £42,000 as the pressure was severely
Choosing a Solicitor
Always check that the solicitor has experience in your type of case. Just
because you have used them before and were happy with them, doesn't necessarily
mean they will be suitable for your current problem.
You should be able to find a specialist either by personal recommendation, via
Yellow Pages or citizens' advice bureaux, or from the Law Society.
Meet with the solicitor before you take them on, and ask for details of their
fees. Ask whether they'll be handling the case themselves or whether they'll be
delegating it. If the latter, find out if the person is fully qualified or a
trainee. If they're not fully qualified, ask who will be supervising them and
how. If you want to pay on a 'no win, no fee' basis, check this is possible.
Write down a list of your questions and make a note of how they're answered.
Finally, if you have any reservations, try another practice.
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