Complaints against lawyers up 30%, reveals Law Society

COMPLAINTS against Scotland's lawyers soared by 30 per cent last year to nearly 5,000, The Scotsman has learned.

The Law Society of Scotland's annual report, unveiled at its closed-doors annual meeting yesterday, showed that 4,849 complaints were made against solicitors last year compared with 3,732 in 2004.

The level of complaints has more than doubled in five years, a trend described by politicians as "very worrying".

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The majority of complaints were about inadequate professional service. The Scottish Executive has unveiled plans to remove this type of complaint from the Law Society and charge a new independent body with investigating "service" grievances, effectively ending centuries of self-regulation within the legal profession.

The report also reveals that more than 1,000 complaints were dismissed. A total of 214,393 was paid out to aggrieved clients in 452 cases. More than 60 lawyers were prosecuted before the Scottish Solicitors' Discipline Tribunal for alleged serious misconduct.

Despite the massive increase in complaints, the society achieved a new target of dealing with 75 per cent of grievances within six months for the first time.

Philip Yelland, director of the society's client relations office, said: "The original target of dealing with 90 per cent of complaints within nine months was maintained throughout last year, despite a sharp rise in number of complaints. This is a significant achievement and one of which we are rightly proud."

The society claimed the rise was due to increased public awareness of the complaints system and continuing complaints by people mis-sold endowment policies in 1980s and 1990s.

Society president Caroline Flanagan said: "There has been a trend here which has pushed up the number of complaints in recent years, and that has been complaints about alleged mis-selling of endowments. We are actually now seeing those figures drop back off.

"Also, people are much more aware they have the right to complain. The Ombudsman acknowledged that in her report and said that was a good thing. I don't think it is because solicitors are failing at a higher level."

But Margo Macdonald MSP, who is chair of the Scottish Legal Awards, described the overall rise as "very worrying".

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"Perhaps the first thing the independent complaints body should do is analyse the reasons why so many people are complaining. I do not think greater public awareness of the system explains that in itself.

"This is very worrying. We have all got to trust lawyers in the same way we trust doctors. If these figures reflected diminishing trust in clients, that would be extremely concerning."

Last November the society urged the Executive to create an independent body to investigate complaints about inadequate professional service from lawyers, which make up around 80 per cent of all such grievances.

The society's recommendations came on the back of an official consultation on legal complaints handling which attracted 500 responses.

Mrs Flanagan said yesterday's annual meeting had been "positive" with lawyers echoing her concerns about aspects of the proposed shake-up in legal services.

These include plans to increase the amount of compensation firms have to pay out to clients from 5,000 to 20,000.

"A lot of people were saying this could put them out of business, or steer away from certain areas of work such as legal aid, or cases of low value."

She also hit out at plans to make firms who are the subject of a complaint pay a 300 "handling fee", regardless of whether the complaint is upheld.

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