Recommendations that the Law Society’s complaints system be changed with the intent of reducing the amount of time spent on less serious matters have been accepted in principle, with some additional recommendations requiring further consideration.
The General Manager of Professional Standards (Regulatory) Gareth Smith explains, “The Law Society has recognised for some time that changes are needed to its complaints (and other regulatory) processes to make these more efficient and responsive. Last year it took a Standards Committee on average 304 calendar days to process a standard complaint.”
“The Law Society agrees this is too long. A significant reason for this delay in resolution is an unresponsive statutory complaints process that requires all complaints received to go before a Standards Committee for consideration.
“It is not currently possible to dismiss complaints administratively if they are trivial, vexatious, or otherwise lacking merit.”
All complaints must go through this strict process, regardless of their seriousness. This means that complaints about rudeness, timeliness or fees are also processed in a similar way to other more serious issues such as incompetence, trust account theft or sexual harassment.
“All fee complaints must be considered in this way no matter the level of the fees complained about. This causes valuable Standards Committee time to be spent on dealing with complaints that could have been responded to and resolved more efficiently.”
“The current delays also impact on both complainants and lawyer respondents, who are required to participate in a protracted and often stressful process.”
Standards Committee members are volunteers and provide invaluable expertise and experience, but the Review noted that developing a specialist in-house complaints team will enable a more efficient and consistent complaints process, resulting in faster resolution of complaints and a smoother, less stressful process for both complainants and lawyers (particularly in relation to low level consumer complaints).
Several comparable jurisdictions adopt a multi-track approach to handling complaints about lawyers, including the regimes for solicitors in Victoria, New South Wales and England and Wales. This enables complaints to be triaged, with the regulator determining that no further action will be taken where deemed unnecessary or inappropriate. For those complaints that progress, less serious complaints about service, including most fee complaints, can be handled using an approach focused on resolution and restoration, while investigative tools are reserved for more serious responses.
An in-house complaints team would need to be supported by appropriate legislation, including legislative provisions that enable a responsive, fair, flexible, and consumer-centric process.
“We recognised in many areas we were hampered by our legislative framework. The Law Society commissioned the Review, and we welcomed its findings, says Katie Rusbatch, Chief Executive.
“While this Review has been underway, we have made significant progress in line with the Review Panel’s conclusions. We’re moving forward on a number of actions that are aligned with the recommendations. There is a new regulatory strategy in place and this has been a significant step forward on our transformation journey to modernising the regulatory functions of the Law Society and making sure our services are responsive.
“We want to become an effective modern regulator, and we’ll continue to work towards that goal whether we get legislative change or not.”