|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. David Lammy): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard) for raising this issue, and I express my sympathy for his constituents, who have clearly had a distressing experience.
Since I joined the Department for Constitutional Affairs when it was formed in June 2003, my overriding aim has been to promote better public services, including legal services, that are designed to meet the needs of the people who use them. Individuals use and depend on the justice system and legal services as they go about their everyday life. Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, for example, used them to deal with the important legal matters of a will and an estate. People who use legal services are no different from other consumers, and are entitled to expect an excellent service from their provider. At worst, that service should be satisfactory. Most people go to a solicitor in times of tremendous stressfor example, when they are buying a house, when they are going through a divorce or dealing with the necessary paperwork following the death of a family member.
As someone who was previously a lawyer, I know that this is bread-and-butter work for solicitors. For the individuals concerned, however, it is a vital matter that can have a devastating and lasting effect on the rest of their lives. Someone going through the stress of a divorce has enough to contend with. How much worse would the whole experience be if, at the end, they felt let down by their solicitor, whom they trusted to uphold their rights and protect their interests? I do not wish to suggest that the majority of solicitors in England and Wales are failing to provide an excellent service. Legal services in the United Kingdom are among the best in the world, and many countries look to us in these isles for the high standard that our legal community upholds. However, we all recognise that sometimes things do not go smoothly, and there has been a problem with the processing of complaints made against solicitors. That could undermine the esteem in which our solicitors are held.
If things go wrong, consumers are entitled to expect that their complaints will be dealt with fairly and effectively. That is true whether the complaint is about a solicitor delaying sending out papers or is a matter of professional misconduct. To the consumer whose life has been affected, it does not matter whether the profession views the complaint as a minor issue or not. What matters to the consumer is that they are listened to and their concerns taken seriously.
My hon. Friend referred to Sir David Clementi's final report on legal services in England and Wales. One of the key recommendations is the proposal for a single new complaints body. We will create an office for legal complaints that will be led by a board with a lay chair and a lay majority. This body will be simpler for the public to use and understand, and better able to provide quick and fair redress. It will ensure consistent, fair and professional handling of cases for all complainants. A single new complaints body should remove the need to distinguish between inadequate service and professional misconduct. That goes to the heart of my hon. Friend's
21 Mar 2005 : Column 708
remarks. It will provide for much greater transparency within the complaints system, so addressing the points that my hon. Friend raised.
I am looking into the amount of compensation for complainants. I agree with the findings of Sir Stephen Lander, the Law Society's independent commissioner, in his 2003 annual report, that the current levels are too low. The Law Society has accepted Sir Stephen's recommendation that the compensation limit when people suffer at the hands of solicitors should be raised to £15,000. I can assure hon. Members that I am keen to implement that as quickly as possible.
Of course, removing complaints handling from the professional bodies will in no way reduce their responsibility to ensure that their members operate to the highest professional and ethical standards at all times. I acknowledge the serious and constant efforts that the professional bodies make in this regard. The office for legal complaints will help. I believe that getting complaints handling right is of critical importance. The solicitor's role as the conduit between the public and the legal system is vital, but it will continue to work effectively only if the Law Society can ensure that its services are carried out to a high standard.
Many people will already be aware of the history of complaints handling by the Law Society. Historically, hon. Members across the House have made representations to the Lord Chancellor's Department because of their concern about the handling of complaints. It was clear that the consumer was being let down. Decisive and immediate action was needed. That is why we took the step of using the powers in the Access to Justice Act 1999 to appoint a Legal Services Complaints Commissioner.
The role of Legal Services Complaints Commissioner has been taken on by Ms Zahida Manzoor, the legal services ombudsman. Ms Manzoor's experience as ombudsman meant that she had the necessary skills to undertake the challenging role of Legal Services Complaints Commissioner. Ms Manzoor's unique knowledge of complaints handling in this field meant that she was able to hit the ground running and speedily engage with the Law Society on how they intend to improve their services.
To ensure that Ms Manzoor is equipped to do the task, we granted her a range of powers. She can require the Law Society to provide information about the handling of complaints; conduct investigations into those complaints; make recommendations on how to improve performance; set stretching targets; require the society to submit a plan showing how it is going to handle complaints, for her approval; and impose a fine if the society fails to meet the agreed plans for improvements in complaints handling.
I have regular meetings with Ms Manzoor and I know that she is already making good use of those powers. She has made recommendations to improve performance and has set performance targets that she believes are reasonable and achievable for the Law Society to meet. The targets represent a package that aims to achieve a balance between timeliness of response, appropriate quality of decision making and customer satisfaction. They are a step towards achieving effective and efficient complaints handling. The Legal Services Complaints Commissioner will keep the targets under close review.
21 Mar 2005 : Column 709
Naturally, she will act in the best interests of the consumer, but balance that with the Law Society's capacity to improve.
I am pleased to report that the Law Society's performance is beginning to improve in several areas, but there is still some considerable way to go before it delivers an effective and efficient complaints-handling service. I am sorry that we did not achieve that for Mr. and Mrs. Andrews. The Law Society has demonstrated its commitment by constructively engaging with the commissioner, responding to feedback and assigning resources to ensure delivery of the required improvements. The commissioner will publish her findings on the Law Society's handling of complaints in her first annual report, which is due to be laid before Parliament in July this year. I look forward to learning of the benefits that the collaborative actions of the commissioner and the Law Society will deliver for consumers.
I spoke earlier about Sir David Clementi's report. The Government have broadly accepted his main recommendations concerning the regulation of legal services, complaints and discipline, and new business
21 Mar 2005 : Column 710
structures. That will form the basis of a wide-ranging programme of reform that the Government will introduce. Much of that programme will require legislation. Earlier today, my noble Friend the Secretary of State gave a public commitment that we will publish a White Paper on the proposed package of reforms this year. That will set out the proposals in detail as well as plans for their implementation. Furthermore, we will bring forward legislation to put these reforms in place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on initiating this debate, which raises yet again in this House the sad state of affairs that some of our constituents experience at the hands of lawyers who should provide a much better quality service. In the past 18 months, we have accepted the recommendations of Sir David Clementi and have moved forward in implementing them. We look forward to the day when we no longer have to discuss the, frankly, shoddy service that some of our constituents get from solicitors when they experience a divorce, have a problem with a will or probate or have difficulties when buying a house. In the meantime, I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the changes that I have outlined.