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Ombudsman to get extra £1.66m – but faces axe if standards don’t improve

By John Hyde >>

(16 March 2021)

The legal complaints handler is set to be granted an extra £1.66m to solve its current crisis – but has been warned that its future is at stake if the investment does not result in improvement.

The Legal Services Board meets this week and is being invited to approve revised proposals from the Office for Legal Complaints to increase its annual budget by 13%. The increase is less than the 19% put forward by the OLC in November – and subsequently dropped in the face of a backlash from the legal profession. It will leave the ombudsman with a total budget of £14.47m for 2021/22.

The LSB’s board paper says investment is needed to give the OLC an opportunity to address performance issues in the context of a backlog of cases that has grown to almost 5,000.

Legal complaints handler is set to be granted extra £1.66m to solve its current crisis

But while the LSB is minded to approve the revised budget, the organisation is warning that any further problems could result in the ombudsman’s future being called into question.

The paper adds: ‘Should the expected benefits not materialise, the board would be justified in calling on the government to pursue alternative arrangements to deliver effective consumer redress in the sector.’

The LSB is likely to seek agreement with the OLC and Ministry of Justice on an enhanced public reporting approach by the complaints handler to explain how it is performing.

Some reduction in the proposed budget had been expected after OLC chair Elisabeth Davies admitted in a blog last week that the original plans were ‘asking for a lot’.

The LSB had already indicated at its meeting in December that it had reservations about the draft budget and whether it was justified. The reduced demands have largely been achieved through cutting the planned levels of recruitment and scaling back spending on non-operational areas. The OLC maintains that higher investment would result in faster progress, but accepts that a 19% increase – funded by regulated lawyers – is ‘not viable given stakeholder feedback’.

The OLC’s minimum expectation, based on the revised budget plan, is that the case backlog will come down from 4,943 to 3,609 by the end of 2022/23. Average waiting times for a response will be cut from 277 days at present to 186 days in two years’ time.

The OLC’s budget application includes a bonus scheme (the ‘Celebrating Success’ reward) of £100,000 – which equates to an average bonus of £374 for every member of staff. The LSB paper notes: ‘While we do not doubt that some Legal Ombudsman staff are performing well and merit reward and recognition, the overall budget seems high in the context of the current performance picture.’

(Courtesy: The Law Society Gazette)