Taking on a solicitor is like seeing Goliath through the eyes of David for many. There has been a tendency in the past to believe that a lack of legal knowledge will render impotent any complaint against a solicitor, but recently released figures suggest that the public's attitude to this difficult area has grown in confidence.
Statistics from the Legal Ombudsman, the body set up to resolve consumer complaints against the legal sector, reveal that enquiries in 2011 increased five-fold compared to two years ago. These findings suggest that the public has started to find its footing in the area of legal consumer rights, and is speaking out if they feel they have been provided with a poor legal service. The positive upshot of this is that negligent solicitors are being viewed less as higher powers shielded behind a screen of immunity, and more as professionals who are, rightly, answerable for their professional conduct and the standard of their work.
The point about professionals is that they claim to be in possession of an expertise not available to the rest of the public. Clearly being a solicitor is no different from any other professional, and they have a duty of care to their clients to provide a service of a reasonably competent standard. The problem is that a consumer suing a solicitor is forced to navigate the very legal system that is the source of their expertise. The Ombudsman goes some way to levelling this uneven playing field.
The marked increase in enquiries to the Legal Ombudsman demonstrates that the public is moving away from the, once common, assumption that it is just too difficult and costly to challenge a lawyer. This is partly because it is a free service and solicitors are obliged to bring its existence to their client's attention at the beginning of a matter. This appears to be empowering consumers so that, rather than being daunted by legal jargon or a lack of legal knowledge, people are recognising that they have a right to challenge unsatisfactory service from a solicitor and that reliable sources of advice, and indeed determination, are on hand.
The difficult part of bringing a case is not, and should never be, taking the decision to pursue the action itself. The difficult part is determining how much a person is likely to be awarded and this is the point at which a professional negligence solicitor can be called upon to help. If, as the report's figures suggest, the deterrent power of the lawyer's expertise is diminishing, it should open the door for cases of negligence to be more widely exposed and resolved. Hopefully, this empowerment by awareness is beginning to break down the barrier of 'untouchable' lawyers that once separated them from the public.
The Ombudsman scheme has provided a platform for people to seek easily accessible advice at the initial stage of bringing a complaint or negligence claim. However, the Ombudsman can only deal with cases of poor service or overcharging, and is unable to make awards exceeding £30,000. So, for those who suffer the misfortune of even greater financial losses, or for those who are unhappy and have rejected the outcome of the Ombudsman, specialist professional negligence solicitors can take up the mantle.
People already recognise very poor service or obvious cases of negligence; a client will obviously know that their last five calls haven't been returned or that they have ended up owning a house that they cannot access. But the Ombudsman figures suggest that people are more willing to question the manner in which a case has been handled and are increasingly less likely to accept unexpected or excessive legal fees. This marks an important correlation; the broader the range of enquiries made, the more progress will be made over public attitudes to taking on the law. Raising questions about more aspects of professional negligence means that more cases of negligence will be identified, and if we can identify a problem exists in the first place, we can work to solve it.
The Legal Ombudsman figures shows that there has been a positive change in how we view the possibility of taking on a negligent lawyer and it is to be hoped that the 'untouchable' tag will continue to fall away. This involves encouraging people that any negligent legal action can and should be challenged, no matter what the level of the loss, because where no financial loss is claimed, any reasonable solicitor will acknowledge poor service or an honest mistake, and the situation should be quickly resolved between client and lawyer. This will create not only a good relationship between solicitors and the public, but also a focus for solicitors to ensure that the legal profession continues to maintain its generally high standards.
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