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10 Mar 2009 : Column 276

The LCS is also taking steps to reach out to traditionally “hard-to-reach” groups, or groups considered to be more vulnerable or disadvantaged. As part of this work, LCS staff attend conferences organised by the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux. They engage with a range of key stakeholders to try to make sure that consumers are aware of the services that the LCS offers.

I am aware of increasing concern about the tactics that some solicitors employ when pursuing costs. I think that we would all agree that court action should be the last step in pursuing payment. Where a matter is referred to the Legal Complaints Service, it will discourage use of the courts until the complaint is resolved. Solicitors are also subject to the duties set out in the solicitors’ code of conduct. Rule 2 of the code includes a requirement to advise the client of the basis and terms of charges, and to discuss with the client how the client will pay. Failure to comply with the code could amount to misconduct, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority would be within its rights to take action over non-compliance.

I commend the actions taken by regulators to improve complaints handling, but the system had needed significant reform for a long time. The Legal Services Act provided that reform by establishing a single entry point complaints body, the Office for Legal Complaints. The OLC will be under a duty to increase the public’s understanding of their rights and duties, which may include consumer rights in respect of complaints. The OLC will administer an ombudsman scheme and will be able to award redress of up to £30,000. Conduct matters will be referred to the relevant regulator for appropriate disciplinary action.

The recently established Legal Services Board has already set out its priorities in relation to complaints. The board’s business plan, which is currently subject to consultation, sets out key deliverables for the coming financial year. They include appointing the OLC, approving its scheme rules, and setting out the requirements for in-house complaints handling. Some of those deliverables have already been achieved, and the key personnel have been identified. Elizabeth France, the chair, has been in place since autumn 2008. Her board, the chief ombudsman and the chief executive have also been recruited. They will now work to ensure that the OLC is implemented effectively before the ombudsman services are fully operational; that is expected to be in 2010.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire for highlighting such an important issue at a crucial time for many people. It is vital that people have access to good quality legal advice, especially in difficult times, and that they have somewhere to go if things go wrong. There is still much to do, but I hope that the examples that I have given show how the system is improving.

Question put and agreed to.

10.42 pm

House adjourned.

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