Almost a third of complaints made to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) are about residential conveyancing issues, such as delay. LeO’s Jason Chapman outlines a real case and explains how complaints can be avoided – saving considerable time and costs.

Residential conveyancing is an area of law most people will encounter during their lifetime.

But many clients instruct legal representatives with little to no experience of buying or selling a property, or what to expect from their solicitors.

Common residential conveyancing complaints include delay, alleged poor communication or the firm’s costs.

The case

Ms M instructed a law firm to represent her in the purchase of a new build leasehold property.

The purchase completed seven months after first instructions were received.

Ms M complained that the firm had unreasonably delayed completion and failed to ensure the purchase progressed within a reasonable timescale.

Ms M believed the firm caused delays by failing to:

  • obtain information from the seller’s solicitors in a timely manner, and
  • chase information, which led to a two-month delay in completion

She considered that she could and should have moved into her new home two months sooner.

The LeO finding

LeO investigated and found the seller’s solicitors sent the requested documents via a document portal that the firm could not access.

Although the firm responded to explain they could not open the documents, they failed to explain why or seek an alternative way to access the documents (such as asking the seller’s solicitors to send them by email).

The firm then failed to chase the seller’s solicitors until almost two months later, at which time the seller’s solicitors agreed to send the documents directly via email.

LeO determined it was not the firm’s fault that they could not access the document portal.

However, the firm did not raise this with the seller’s solicitors until Ms M sought an update a month later.

It then took a further three weeks to chase the seller’s solicitors to send the information.

LeO would have reasonably expected the firm to have chased the information sooner.

The ombudsman upheld the complaint that the firm had caused delays to the transaction.

LeO further determined that completion could not take place until both the firm and Ms M had seen the documents, which related to proof of certification for the new build property.

As the property was new and therefore vacant, LeO agreed that Ms M could have moved in two months earlier, had the firm’s service been reasonable.

Resolving the complaint

The firm accepted that the service was poor and made an offer of £175 to settle Ms M’s complaint.

LeO accepted that the delay was frustrating and upsetting for Ms M.

However, it was relatively short-lived and had not caused her to suffer any financial loss. Ms M was a first-time buyer living with her parents before moving into her new home. 

The ombudsman considered the matter fell within the ‘modest’ range of compensation, as set out in the LeO guide to putting things right.

LeO considered the firm’s offer to be reasonable in the circumstances, and endorsed the offer.

Although in this case Ms M did not suffer financial loss, unreasonable delays in conveyancing complaints can cause substantial financial losses, such as alternative accommodation and storage costs incurred where clients are unable to move into their new property.

In such cases, LeO can direct providers to reimburse the client for reasonable losses.

Avoiding future complaints

To avoid similar complaints, it’s important to make sure that you:

  • communicate clearly and precisely with all parties, including your client
  • review transactions at regular intervals to identify any hold ups and where they lie to minimise delays
  • keep your client informed – especially if the delay is caused by someone else or where matters are outside of your control

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Further resources

Explore best practice guidance on handling complaints and what to do when a complaint goes to LeO.

LeO’s Scheme Rules were updated from 1 April 2023. Find out how the changes impact complaints handling.

If you’re grappling with a complaint and would benefit from free and confidential support, contact our Lawyerline helpline service or call 020 7320 5720 from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

LeO’s guide to putting things right sets out how an ombudsman will approach remedies for poor service.