Legal Services Bill [HL]
Lord Kingsland (Shadow Lord Chancellor, Constitutional Affairs; Conservative)
My Lords, I will speak also to the remaining amendments in the group. The most important reason for supporting the amendment, and those that flow from it, is one of principle. Those exonerated following investigation or litigation should not be penalised for being found blameless. Accordingly, to require an authorised person under the Bill to pay the Office of Legal Complaints for the costs of handling a complaint when the complaint is unfounded and the person has handled the matter properly in house would be wholly unjust.
It would also deter practitioners from acting in those fields of law where unjustified complaints are disproportionately likely such as in the areas of criminal and family law. In any case, since it will not be the Government or the OLC but the authorised persons in general who will have to pay instead through the general levy, neither the Government nor the OLC have any financial interest in sustaining the scheme set out in the Bill.
The Bill's provisions are founded on the approach adopted by the financial ombudsman scheme. There, financial service providers are required to pay charges in respect of the handling of a complaint whatever its outcome. The Government believe that the OLC should be free to adopt the same approach; but the circumstances of the provision of legal services are different from the provision of financial services. Unfounded complaints, for example, from those who have lost a court case or whose house purchase has fallen through, are far more likely than in financial services. Furthermore, some practitioners are disproportionately likely, as I have indicated, to be the subject of such complaints. We think it is imperative that the administrative convenience of the OLC is not allowed to cause the clear injustice to lawyers of having to pay costs even where a complaint is not upheld and where their in-house handling of the complaint has been exemplary.
Yet if the OLC has an unrestricted power to charge, it is likely to opt for a case-handling fee in all circumstances simply because that would be administratively more convenient to operate. I would add parenthetically and, I hope, reassuringly that of course we accept that the power to order authorised persons to pay charges cannot sensibly be confined only to cases where the complaint is upheld after a determination by an ombudsman. The likelihood is that the great majority of complaints will be conciliated in one way or another. It would not be satisfactory if authorised persons could avoid any liability to pay simply by settling the matter shortly before a determination would have to be made.
Our amendment would also have the added attraction of encouraging practitioners to operate proper in-house complaints resolution systems. Failure to operate proper in-house procedures damages one of the Bill's key objectives; namely, ensuring that complaints can be resolved as rapidly as possible. Leaving all matters to be sorted out by the OLC is unsatisfactory from the perspective of complainants and involves putting an additional burden on the OLC. There is no reason why the profession collectively, rather than the practitioner who has failed to deal properly with the matter in-house, should bear the cost of that.
In conclusion, it is important for the Bill to set out the limits of the OLC's discretion to impose charges. It would be quite wrong to put administrative simplicity ahead of the need to avoid causing injustice to those authorised persons who are the subject of unfounded complaints. I need add nothing to what I have said about the Minister's proposition that complaints that have got as far as the OLC must be partially justified. That assertion was effectively demolished in Committee. I beg to move.