Advice for practitioners and firms on service standards and complaints [updated 1 March 2021]
This information is for practitioners and law firms. It is intended to support you to ensure that any changes to your service to deal with the current restrictions do not result in additional avoidable complaints, and to reassure you about how we will deal with any complaints which do arise.
Experience from the first year of Covid-19 restrictions shows lawyers and firms have largely adapted well. It may be of some reassurance that we are not seeing an increase in complaints, nor are we seeing many specifically relating to Covid-19 or how service may have been impacted by Covid-19.
We continue to suggest the same guidance on how best to avoid and deal with complaints and provide reassurance about how we will deal with any complaints relating to this period that come to us.
We know that firms have had to adapt their business practices to the ever changing situation, while trying to maintain a good quality service to their clients. We will take into account the challenge presented by Covid-19 in considering complaints and how these have been handled by practitioners.
Many aspects of our decision-making involves consideration of what is reasonable, which is contextualised by many factors. As the situation continues, there will be a greater expectation that firms will have in place new ways of working to ensure their service can be delivered, but we continue to recognise the challenge of predicting and planning as government policy and restrictions change.
What you can do
The sorts of things that practitioners can do to manage client expectations:
- We all now have considerable experience of working under restrictions and throughout this period there have been some changes which can impact the service provided. Make sure you regularly review what service you are able to provide and ensure you update clients if and when things change.
- Publish a clear statement about your working arrangements on your website, on social media and by email/ letter to ensure existing and potential clients know how and when they can contact you.
- Review your terms of business letters – if there are any obstacles to delivering the service you have committed to, make sure you communicate this clearly to clients.
- Be open and honest with clients where there are delays or issues due to Covid-19.
- If there are delays or changes in circumstances, keep clients updated – this may well prevent a complaint, or can be taken into account if a complaint does materialise. This might include who is doing the work, or how and when you might communicate with clients.
- Consider whether any updates are needed to your privacy notices due to changes in the way you are using or transmitting data.
- Be open and frank with the SLCC if there have been issues due to Covid-19, and what you have put in place to deal with them.
- Keep a log of any changes you make to your service and any communications you share or issue to clients.
What we will take into account
The SLCC understands that changes to service because of Covid-19 may include:
- Delays in keeping clients updated (which may be justifiable if stemming from the Covid-19 and where reasonable business continuity planning was in place).
- Reduced contact by phone.
- Reduced / no access to solicitors in person.
- Changes to the frequency or method of communication, including using email when secure and appropriate.
- Changes to who will carry out the work.
- Protecting client confidentiality by restricting sensitive information to those who have access to secure IT.
- Deciding not to take on or complete work where you are unable to provide an adequate service.
- Lack of or change to the appointed Client Relations Manager and any resultant delays or failures to deal with complaints and/or the SLCC.
In all cases, we would expect such changes to be well communicated to clients.
What we will do
We have reviewed our own processes and approach and we can confirm that we will be:
- Continuing to accept new complaints.
- Managing complaints within our system and maintaining our usual service and target timeframes.
- Progressing cases as normal where we have digital files, and making arrangements for paper files or communications by mail.
- In exceptional circumstances, and where there is a clear reason to do so, allowing appropriate extra time for practitioners and complainers to respond to complaints, provide files and supporting evidence.
- Considering not contesting appeals which are made out of time due to Covid-19.
- Continuing to make awards of redress and apply the complaint levy as normal (see note below).
Awards of redress and application of the complaint levy
We recognise that some firms may have cash flow issues at present.
Where this is the case, the first priority should be redress for the client. If a firm is unable to pay the amount in full, we will consider options for delayed or scheduled payment on a case by case basis, taking into account the current circumstances. Once redress to the client has been paid, the firm should consider the complaint levy. Again, we will consider options on a case by cases basis. If the direction and levy are not paid within the 28 days specified, without agreed arrangements in place, our Compliance Department will be in touch with the firm to discuss matters.