The Ombudsman's Corner

The Ombudsman’s Corner: August 2023

LeO’s perspective on vulnerability

Legal services aren’t something people use every day, and can often be a consequence of an upsetting or stressful event – for example, a marriage breaking down, the death of a close relative, or difficulties at work.

It’s for this reason we often describe legal services as a “distress purchase”. And it is often the case that a client who engages a legal provider – and those who bring a complaint to the Legal Ombudsman – is vulnerable in some way.

What do we mean by vulnerability? Research published by the Legal Services Board in March 2022 suggests it’s where risk factors in people’s circumstances or personal characteristics combine with the actions of organisations or service providers, leading them to experience harm, disadvantage or detriment.

Often, it’s the situation that someone has found themselves in that makes them vulnerable. However, they may be vulnerable for other reasons, such as physical disability, poor mental health, low levels or literacy or low income. For many people, it’s a combination of these factors. All can mean people are at greater risk of harm in their interactions with legal services. In research by the LSBnearly all participants – including those who were likely to appear as assured and confident in meetings with legal professionals – described feelings of vulnerability linked to their situation”.

From our perspective, it’s vital that anyone who comes to us has the support they need to ensure they achieve a fair outcome from our process. We have detailed internal guidance for our own staff, which includes how to recognise vulnerability and what to do when someone who is vulnerable comes to us – providing necessary adjustments to ensure that they’re not disadvantaged in using our service.

And although most people we support are consumers, we recognise that service providers themselves may be vulnerable for both personal and situational reasons – and we’ll aim to help in these circumstances too.

So how do we support people who are experiencing vulnerability? In 2019 we introduced Vulnerable Customer Champions (VCCs), who work across the whole of LeO, and who accept referrals from colleagues who’ve identified that a customer needs additional support. Last year, our staff made over 300 referrals to the VCCs.

An example of the difference our VCCs can make is the case of Mr A, who contacted us with a complaint about how a legal firm had handled his personal injury claim. He told us he had learning difficulties, issues with his memory and struggled to focus. He said he wasn’t able to write a complaint himself and had no one else to help him do this. Our General Enquiries team referred him to a VCC, who helped draft a complaint letter to the firm on his behalf. The VCC also established that Mr A would be better able to explain some of his issues to the firm verbally. So they arranged for the firm to contact Mr A, suggesting they take full complaint details and telephone notes for future reference.

We’ve also worked with an external expert to ensure our training materials reflect up-to-date best practice and delivered training to our staff. For particularly complex cases, we’ve established a Vulnerable Customer Multi-disciplinary Team (MDT). This is made up of managers from different parts of the organisation who can provide advice on how best to support customers, while ensuring that cases are able to progress in line with our Scheme Rules.

A customer’s vulnerability, as with their wider circumstances, will be unique to them. We listen to what they need and explore what reasonable adjustments we can make to our process or communication to ensure they receive the level of service from us they are entitled to. We will of consider all options and look to identify options that are both effective and proportionate.

For example, we can change the speed of our process, such as prioritising an investigation or decision if urgent action is required, or agreeing to suspend an investigation if customers can’t proceed at that time, or change how we communicate, whether that be a preference for phone or written contact; contact at certain times of day; or alterations to our usual font, size, or language.

Where a customer’s vulnerabilities are particularly complex, we can work with an appointed representative or meet a customer in person if this is the most appropriate option, and we will take additional time to explain our process or decisions; and allow additional opportunities for questions or requests for repeat information.

We can appoint single points of contact, so a customer doesn’t need to communicate with different members of staff at different stages in our process and/or where they have multiple cases, and we will constantly review and revisit any agreed reasonable adjustments at key intervals to ensure they are still relevant and appropriate.

Of course, as for all organisations, this is an area of continuous development for LeO. We continue to learn from our customer feedback to improve our service, and would encourage service providers to do the same.

We’d encourage service providers to make sure they’re up to date with the latest thinking around vulnerability – making best use of resources provided by regulators and trade bodies, and other sources of best practice within and outside legal services.

As always, our technical advice desk is here to answer any questions you have about a complaint you’re dealing with, including where vulnerability is a factor.

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