Chief ombudsman Kathryn Stone OBE examines good practice for small firms in complaint handling.

The Legal Ombudsman is the complaint handling body for the legal profession. We investigate complaints about the service people have received from their legal service provider, and we feed back to the profession on any trends or issues we see.

That’s why, earlier this year, we published and online case study - Learning from complaints - to illustrate the kind of complaints we receive and the areas of law in which they most commonly arise.

Since the Legal Ombudsman started accepting complaints in October 2010, trends have remained fairly steady. For instance, complaints about costs, communication issues and delays are usually the top issues. Let’s face it, there are emails and letters you want to send, and then there are those that you have to send. If in doubt, it’s a good idea to park any correspondence in your drafts folder until you can approach it in a more objective manner.

We often see complaint responses that use inappropriate language and which can, in a few cases, be offensive. Firms should bear in mind that the purpose of the complaints procedure is to resolve issues. The language and method of responding should facilitate this and, even where you disagree with the customer, the response should be measured and the reasons for the decision must be clearly specified.

Here’s an example of a firm responding to a complaint:

‘Dear Mr X, You have just sent an email to Mr A which he has forwarded to me. Please ensure all correspondence is sent to me personally… You are ignoring the fact that I emailed you on X following your conversation with a colleague and you failed to respond to my email. Why did you fail to respond? Why did you not reply and lodge a formal complaint?’

Tone of voice

The tone in the response above is unlikely to help resolve the issue. Try putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and see if this response would encourage you to try and reach a resolution.

Also, we know complaints can sometimes feel like a personal attack, so consider whether you are best placed to respond. Here’s an example of this - the solicitor did respond to the complaint but, rather than providing a comprehensive response, simply added in a sentence at the end of the customer’s points:

‘Historically, attempts I have made to contact you,. over the past six months, have often been ignored. I think I have responded to all of your emails bar one from 21 August which I missed. Apologies there.’

Although the firm responded to the complaint, the style of the response would not have reassured the customer that their complaint had been given proper consideration. It’s important to think about complaints objectively and consider the impact of each accordingly.

Impact and remedy

In complaint correspondence, it’s common to see the firm re-state certain facts or defend their position without considering the impact of their actions on the customer. When looking at complaints, and remedies in particular, it is important to identify what the impact of any poor service was and if there is an appropriate remedy you can offer.

Finalise your complaints process

Complaints where the firm does not tell the customer they have finished their complaints process, or that they can bring their complaint to the Legal Ombudsman, are very common and one of the key things considered when deciding whether a case fee should be waived.

Where to find more information

To sum up, when dealing with complaints it is important to think about them objectively and consider the impact of each accordingly. For further advice on all of these areas, see: