An issue that all ombudsman schemes face is that it is difficult to forecast the level of demand on its service. During the pandemic most schemes saw an increase in demand for two reasons – people having time to reflect on the service they received from providers and then time to raise complaints about it, and providers having issues themselves during what was a difficult time, which led to complaints.
The Legal Ombudsman was no different and we found that demand for our service increased significantly during this period. As a response to this, we made changes to our front end process to manage increases in demand as and when they happen.
We implemented a team, including four ombudsmen, to assess every complaint when we receive it. They then dealt with those cases which could be resolved very early on and identified complaints which are not suitable for investigation at an early stage, so that those customers were not waiting unnecessarily for an investigation.
As well as enabling us to manage demand better, a benefit of assessing every case is that we can quickly identify trends and themes of complaints, which we can feed back to the profession, either through blogs and articles like this, or via published guidance or case studies on our website.
A major theme of complaint that our Front End team has seen over the past year relates to Stamp Duty. The Government’s decision to implement a Stamp Duty holiday in 2021 led to a lot of complaints that conveyancing firms failed to complete the purchase before the window closed. Clients were complaining that delays incurred by the instructed firm led to the client being asked to pay Stamp Duty that they felt they shouldn’t have incurred.
During the summer of 2022, Stamp Duty complaints accounted for almost a quarter of all complaints received by the Legal Ombudsman. It is worth saying that there will be an inevitable time lag between an issue happening and the complaint being received and assessed by the Front End team – the complaint will be dealt with by the firm first in accordance with their own Complaints Handling Procedure, and there will generally be a period of between six and nine months between the issue arising and the complaint being referred to this office.
Our response to the spike in Stamp Duty cases was to issue both internal and external guidance on our approach to dealing with these complaints. In summary, our position was that it was rare to see firms guaranteeing the date of completion as so much was out of their control, and providing that the firm provided clear advice on timescales, we would not consider a failure to complete the purchase before the window closed to be poor service.
We have also recently seen many complaints relating to re-mortgages. This was a consequence of the mini budget in September/October 2022 and the rise in interest rates because of that. This resulted in not only a rise in people re-mortgaging, but also people wanting to complete on their offers before they expired and higher rates were incurred. We’ve seen a lot of complaints relating to delay of completion of these deals and poor communication, reflecting the increased workload in this area.
We are currently assessing complaints to see if there is an increase in demand for costs complaints following the Belsner v CAM Legal Services, the changes to Qualified One Way Cost Shifting, and whether there are significant numbers of complaints relating to Class Action claims such as the Uber taxi drivers holiday pay claims. It is early days for those, but we are continually monitoring the situation in case we need to take any action on them.
In addition to general complaint themes, our Front End team are also able to track issues with individual service providers as and when they arise. We have seen cases recently where firms have received significant numbers of complaints over a short period of time, which are atypical for those firms and which we would not expect to see.
Some of these issues relates to more general trends, such as the Stamp Duty and re-mortgage issues, but we also see firms having difficulties with complaints handling due to issues such as resource and capacity. In response to this, we have reached out to them to offer help and support.
This has been positively received and we have visited firms face to face and reviewed their processes and procedures. We want to ensure that the firms’ complaints handling is as effective as it should be and made suggestions for changes and improvements if not.
We are committed to providing help and support to the profession wherever possible, and the Front End team helps us to do this. It also helps us to understand internally what is happening within the profession so we issue any guidance required and manage our overall caseholding so we are able to deal with complaints more effectively.