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‘Poor communication’ a feature of legal complaints, says LSRA
LSRA chief executive Brian Doherty

03 Mar 2020 / regulation Print

‘Poor communication’ a feature of legal complaints

There were 304 complaints received by the Legal Services Regulatory Authority (LSRA) during the 12-week period from its establishment on 7 October 2019, to the end of December.

The LSRA published its 2019 annual report today, as the independent statutory body responsible for the regulation of legal services provision.

In November 2019, the LSRA introduced a new legal framework that authorises partnerships of solicitors to operate as limited liability partnerships (LLPs).

By the end of 2019, 88 valid applications for LLP authorisation were submitted by legal firms, and 28 authorisations were issued by the LSRA. There were 175 requests for application forms.

This new business model puts Ireland on a par with other jurisdictions, and will increase competition in the legal-services market, reduce professional indemnity insurance (PII) costs for LLPs, and consequently lower costs for consumers, the LSRA says.

Of the 304 complaints, 301 related to solicitors, and three related to barristers. 

Inadequate service standards

A total of 141 complaints alleged inadequate standards of services, with 134 alleging misconduct, and 29 relating to alleged excessive costs (overcharging).

The complaints and resolutions unit received 954 phone calls and emails requesting information and/or complaint forms.

Among the areas complained about were:

  • Wills and probate,
  • Litigation,
  • Conveyancing, and
  • Family law.

A total of nine complaints in 2019 involved issues relating to alleged criminal activity, with the majority related to allegations against a suspected bogus law firm. These were referred to An Garda Síochána.

LSRA chief executive Brian Doherty says: “The LSRA had been expecting an early spike in complaints, and that is exactly what we have experienced.

“It is still too early to point to particular trends in relation to the complaints we have received. However, allegations of poor communication between legal professionals and their clients is emerging as a strong feature across almost all complaints.

“Regular and timely communication with clients appears to be a key lesson for practitioners in preventing and settling complaints before they escalate.”

Brian Doherty said that he was heartened to see both the public and practitioners engaging with the new statutory provisions, which can allow for early and informal resolution of complaints.

The three grounds for complaint under Part 6 of the act are, that:

  • The legal services provided were of an inadequate standard,
  • The amount of costs sought by the legal practitioner were excessive, and
  • The legal practitioner performed an act or omission that amounted to misconduct under the act. 

Misconduct

Misconduct is broadly defined in the act, and includes an act or omission that involves fraud or dishonesty; or which is likely to bring the profession into disrepute.

Once a complaint is deemed to be admissible, and relates to inadequate service or excessive fees, the act requires the LSRA to invite the parties to resolve matters informally, if possible.

A total of 14 complaints were resolved at the pre-admissibility stage – that is, before the LSRA had made a determination as to whether or not the complaint was admissible.

Complaints

The largest category of complaints related to service standards.

A total of 141 (46.4%) complaints were from clients in relation to alleged inadequate standards of the legal services provided.

A further 134 (44.1%) related to alleged misconduct, while 29 (9.5%) alleged that excessive costs had been sought.

“Even in the relatively short period of time to the end of 2019, certain themes have started to emerge,” the LSRA says.

“One feature that cuts across almost all complaints is, perhaps, unsurprisingly, communication.

“Where a legal practitioner fails to properly respond and adequately explain issues to clients, then complaints will inevitably follow,” the annual report says.

The authority says that it was surprised at the high volume of complaints relating to probate, with 45 received about the administration of estates.

This is slightly more than litigation (42) and significantly higher than conveyancing (32) and family law (19).

A total of 29 complaints alleged that excessive costs had been sought. Of these, 11 related to litigation, six to conveyancing, five to family law, and four to probate.

Of the 134 complaints of alleged misconduct, 18 related to failure to communicate, 17 involved failure to comply with an undertaking given to a colleague or financial institution, 15 related to failure to account for clients’ money, and 15 involved alleged fraud or dishonesty.

Public-facing register

The LSRA also maintains a free and searchable public-facing register of all barristers entitled to provide legal services in the State.

A total of 2,735 barristers are named on the LSRA’s Roll of Practising Barristers at the end of 2019, which includes in-house counsel and barristers in the full-time service of the State.

Over the course of the year, 450 practising barristers were added to the Roll, and numbers grew from 2,285 on 1 January to 2,735 on 31 December last year. Of these, 2,100 were members of the Law Library.

On 7 October 2019, the LSRA took over legal responsibility for complaints about barristers and solicitors, which, previously, were made to the two professional bodies – the Law Society and the Bar of Ireland.

Follow-up reports

The LSRA will publish its first detailed bi-annual complaints report in April 2020, with follow-up reports every six months thereafter.

The authority has also published a new-three year strategic plan for 2019-2022.

LSRA members met five times during 2019, and staffing levels now stand at 27.

The two Law Society representatives on the LSRA are James MacGuill and Geraldine Clarke, both past-presidents of the Society.

Advance funding

Since its establishment in October 2016, the LSRA has relied on advance funding from the Department of Justice and Equality. However, in November last year, the body issued its first statutory levy on legal practitioners.

Last August, the LSRA determined its operating costs and administrative expenses for the 2018 financial year, and then calculated the proportion payable by the Law Society, the Bar of Ireland, and practising barristers who are not members of the Law Library.

The levy for the 2018 financial year came to €98.76 per legal practitioner.

Fee income

The LSRA also began receiving fee income for the authorisation of LLPs.

2020 will see:

  • The introduction of legal partnerships,
  • Regulations in relation to the advertising of legal services,
  • A report on legal education and training, and
  • Reports on the admission policies of the legal profession.

The LSRA will also be considering whether the professions should be unified.

A total of 100 people took part in an LSRA symposium on legal education and training at Croke Park, Dublin, last September.

The organisation will move into new headquarters in Shea’s Court, Stoneybatter in Dublin 7, at the end of March, adjacent to the legal quarter, which houses both the Law Society and Bar Council, as well as the Four Courts and the Criminal Courts of Justice.

The LSRA is an FOI body under the Freedom of Information Act 2014.

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