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Mr. Garnier: As the Minister said so disarmingly and candidly a moment ago, the new proposals are late, and have been submitted to the public gaze only over the past

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10 days or so. I acquit the Minister of presenting them late, because he joined the Department only recently. Moreover, he was courteous enough to invite my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) and me to his office last week so that we could go through some of the new clauses and amendments that the Government were proposing to table.

9.15 pm

Having acquitted the Minister, however, I cannot acquit the Government of not having come to the aid of the public before now. I am not at all convinced that enough has changed between December--when the Bill was introduced in the other place--and now to make the Government's delay acceptable. It is fair to say that the Minister's predecessor trailed on Second Reading decisions about the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors but I am not persuaded that enough has happened since then to allow for such a delay.

It is fortunate that new clauses 8, 9, 10 and 11 are largely uncontroversial. None the less, it is the duty of an Opposition, and certainly the duty of the House as a whole, to examine carefully amendments to Government legislation that are tabled so late. I therefore propose to take a little look at the new clauses.

I listened carefully to what the Minister said about new clause 8. I understand that it gives the legal services ombudsman power to make binding decisions, rather than merely recommending that individual lawyers or professional bodies take particular action.

Although the ombudsman does not at present have power to order solicitors--or other lawyers--or their professional bodies to pay compensation to clients, the ombudsman does have power to require them to place advertisements, at their own expense, publicising the ombudsman's decision. I understand from solicitors that that is an unreal and unsatisfactory situation, and that it would be far more straightforward, and more useful to the lay client concerned, for the ombudsman to have direct power to make binding orders, rather than simply having a power to embarrass the lawyer or professional body.

The Minister said that the situation at the OSS had changed--had deteriorated--since the Bill first came to public notice. I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of complaints that I have received in my constituency about the quality of service provided by solicitors since becoming a Member of Parliament in April 1992.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): That is not my experience.

Mr. Garnier: I appreciate that others may have had different experiences. The hon. Member for Dismore--[Interruption.] Perhaps I should call him Mr. Hendon. Anyway, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) has clearly had a wholly different experience. Last week, he and I were at a meeting with the director of the OSS, Mr. Peter Ross, at which the hon. Gentleman painted a picture very different from the one that I knew. It was clear that my experience during seven or eight years here differed greatly from his during the two or three years since his election.

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I appreciate that different Members of Parliament will tell different stories. What I ask the Minister is this: what is his evidence--actual evidence, as opposed to simple assertion--that the position changed so dramatically between the beginning of the year and now that it was appropriate to table the new clauses last week?

New clause 9 is intended to enable the Lord Chancellor to require any professional body to make payments towards the cost of meeting the functions of the ombudsman. At present, those functions are funded by moneys provided by Parliament.

The purpose of new clause 9 is to enable the Lord Chancellor to recover from the professional bodies concerned the costs of operating the new functions proposed for the legal services complaints commissioner should it be decided to make such an appointment. The provision for a legal services complaints commissioner and his or her functions are, as the Minister explained, stated in new clauses 10 and 11.

The Opposition say that it is important that the Bill should make it clear that the power to recover costs is intended to apply only to the new functions. At the very least, it is important that the Government should state their plans for the operation of new clause 9. In any case there is some doubt about the appropriateness of the new clause.

Does the Minister agree that meeting the costs of the ombudsman and of the proposed complaints commissioner--I agree that there is some debate on whether the same human being should fill both posts, or whether the posts should be filled by two people--out of moneys provided by Parliament, rather than by levying the professional associations, would help to reinforce the independence of the two offices? Recovering costs from the professional bodies would--or at least could--give rise to the public perception that the ombudsman was not wholly independent of them.

Some people argue that making the professional bodies pay towards the ombudsman's costs would be consistent with the approach taken in other spheres--for example, in the case of the insurance ombudsman. However, that is a false analogy. The insurance ombudsman is the first tier for complaints about individual insurance companies, and the same applies to other ombudsmen in the financial services sector.

The professions already meet the full costs of first-tier complaints. In the case of the Law Society, the profession spends more than £11 million annually on the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors. The legal services ombudsman is a second-tier structure, designed to provide additional public assurance about the operation of the profession's complaints-handling mechanism. It is far more appropriate for such a scheme to be paid for from moneys provided by Parliament than for it to be funded by the professional bodies. I trust that the Minister will be able to help me in addressing my concerns on that issue.

New clause 11 would enable the Lord Chancellor to ask the legal services complaints commissioner to exercise new powers concerning professional bodies. The powers would include setting targets on the handling of complaints, and requiring professional bodies to pay a penalty when they failed to handle complaints effectively.

I understand the argument that it is in the public interest that there should be some means of ensuring that the ways in which the professional bodies handle complaints meet reasonable public needs. There is, indeed, a strong case

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for providing similar assurances for some of the services that the Government themselves provide directly to the public. I also recognise that the concern underlying new clause 11 has arisen primarily from the difficulty that the OSS has encountered in keeping pace with its increased work load.

As I said, the Law Society already spends £11.6 million annually--about £150 for every practising solicitor--on the OSS. As the Minister said, last February, the Law Society commissioned Ernst and Young, the management consultants, to undertake a review of the OSS's work and to suggest ways forward. The review has now been completed, and paints a very clear picture of how a more effective and efficient complaints-handling system could be achieved. The hon. Member for Hendon and I discussed that matter at our meeting with the director of the OSS.

Later this week, as a first step, the council of the Law Society will be asked to approve a further £5.7 million of expenditure that is designed to enable the OSS to get on top of its work load.

Paradoxically, the increased volume of complaints at the OSS comes at a time when the standard of client care provided by the profession as a whole has--I think indisputably--been steadily improving. Solicitors generally take far more care than they did a few years ago to ensure that clients are aware of likely costs at the outset, and that they are informed of progress on their matter. A whole new culture seems to have developed around the way in which legal advisers, both at the Bar and in the solicitors' profession, treat their clients, and that is much to be welcomed.

Nevertheless, complaints--and the costs of dealing with them--have risen, for two main reasons: increased client expectations about the type of service that they can expect from solicitors; and much-improved information from solicitors about clients' avenues of complaint.

The Law Society tells me that it recognises that there is still some way to go in bringing all solicitors up to the level of the majority in their dealings with their clients. Another matter that came out at the meeting that the hon. Member for Hendon and I attended last week was that we are talking about a small minority of rotten apples in what is otherwise a well-regulated and well-conducted profession. I notice that the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) is here. He was also at the meeting, and I hope that he will be able to confirm what I say. That small number of malefactors brings not just solicitors but the whole legal profession into disrepute. I understand the public's concerns and the need for the Government to do something to assuage them.

The Law Society's continuing efforts in education, together with ensuring that appropriate penalties are imposed on those who let the profession down, are the way forward. Dealing with complaints more efficiently requires effort to reduce the number of complaints and to ensure appropriate prioritisation among those that need to be dealt with. Improved client care, including complaints handling by individual solicitors, can reduce the burden on the OSS. The legal profession should deal with complaints early and follow the example of the three major acute hospitals that serve the Minister's constituency and mine by persuading the complaining

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client or a member of their family that there are two sides to the argument and that it is possible to admit a mistake without admitting legal liability. The way in which a complaint is initially handled can often save a lot of time and money. I trust that solicitors and barristers will increasingly take a more conciliatory attitude towards those who complain about them and that the somewhat draconian measures that the Government are proposing may not need to be implemented.

The new clause provides for a penalty to be imposed on professional bodies if they fail to provide a satisfactory plan or to deal with complaints in accordance with it. I am instructed by the Law Society that it doubts whether that is appropriate. In any event, the Bill should specify the penalty that might be imposed. I use the term "instructed" because it slips easily from my lips. In my day job, to which I admitted at the start of our debates, I have the advantage--whether my clients consider it such is another matter--of being instructed by solicitors. It simply means that I am provided with information by them. The Law Society has told me about the concern that I am raising. It is only right that the House should take that into account when considering the new clauses. The Minister may be able to give us some help on those concerns.

I do not intend to debate new schedule 1 or amendment No. 86 and I do not invite the House to disagree with the proposals. However, I chide the Government, if not the Minister, for taking until June 1999 to come up with wording for new clauses which, with a little industry, could have been in the Bill when it was published, or at least introduced in Committee.


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