Ethics Hub

Scenario: You get a complaint from a vulnerable client

You have been representing Mr Singh, a lay client. He wants to challenge a bill given to him from a firm of solicitors who acted for him on a conveyance of his property.

At the start of the case, you met Mr Singh in person to discuss the issues at hand. After this meeting you provided him with a written estimate of costs for the whole matter. You also provided him with a letter of engagement, a copy of your complaints procedure, a detailed note of your meeting and a breakdown of your fees. You have been communicating regularly with Mr Singh by telephone and email, updating him on progress.

Last week, you succeeded in obtaining an order in Mr Singh’s favour.

After receiving your bill, Mr Singh phones you to tell you he is extremely unhappy. He tells you that your bill is much higher than he was expecting. He says that, in his opinion, you are trying to take advantage of him because he is a pensioner. He adds that, given his experience with his previous solicitor and you, he now does not trust the legal profession and is going to contact the local press about you.

How would you go about addressing Mr Singh’s complaint?

What are your obligations under the code of conduct?

  • Principle 3.2 of the Code of Conduct states that you must provide for an effective complaints procedure for handling complaints from clients, covering issues relating to your professional conduct as well as the service you provide, in line with the CLSB’s guidance on complaints procedures. Even though Mr Singh has called you rather than written to you, you will still need to deal with his concerns as a complaint and ensure that you follow your complaints procedure. If you need confirmation or clarification in relation to any of the issues Mr Singh has raised, you could ask him to set these out in writing, but this should not be a barrier to him making a complaint.
  • Principle 3.3 of the Code of Conduct states that you should ensure that Mr Singh’s complaint is responded to promptly, openly and fairly, and within eight weeks of you receiving it.
  • Where reasonably possible, you should ensure that the person who investigates the complaint was not involved in the matter themselves, and has the appropriate seniority, training and understanding to provide a good complaints service.
  • In line with Principle 3.7 of the Code of Conduct, you should ensure that the progress of the complaint and the outcome is communicated to Mr Singh in a form that is tailored to his needs, attributes and circumstances. As Mr Singh is a pensioner, he is potentially a vulnerable client and you should tailor your communications accordingly. You should also review the CLSB guidance note on vulnerable clients.
  • If you are a sole practitioner, you may have to deal with a complaint yourself, but you may also be able to arrange for another practitioner to handle the complaint or review your own handling of it.
  • There are numerous remedies that could be considered for Mr Singh, including an apology, an explanation of what went wrong, financial compensation, or other remedial steps to reduce the impact on the complainant. The investigator should consider all appropriate remedies, even if they were not expressly sought by Mr Singh.
  • Principle 3.2 – You must provide for an effective complaints procedure for handling complaints from clients, covering issues relating to your professional conduct as well as the service you provide, in line with the CLSB’s guidance on complaints procedures.
  • Principle 3.3. – You must ensure that complaints are dealt with promptly (within a maximum eight week period from the date of receipt) openly and fairly and that appropriate provisions for redress exist.
  • Principle 3.4 – You must ensure that new clients are advised in writing when instructions are first received of:
  • an estimate of fees/details of charging structure and where that estimate subsequently becomes inaccurate or that charging structure changes provide an updated estimate/notice of revised charges;
  • the right to complain;
  • how to complain i.e. the complaints procedure that applies to the services you will provide; and
  • if applicable, the client’s right to refer their complaint to the Legal Ombudsman in certain circumstances.
  • Principle 3.7 – You must ensure that the information you provide to each client or prospective client is in a form that is tailored to their attributes, needs and circumstances.
  • Principle 4.5 – You must keep your client regularly informed as to the progress of the work and keep accurate records of that work.
  • Principle 4.6 – You must ensure your client is able to make informed decisions about the work being undertaken on their behalf throughout the lifetime of a matter, including how it will be priced, the costs incurred and the likely overall cost of the matter (including any potential liability for the costs of any other parties).

See our Guidance Notes on the following topics in the Costs Lawyer Handbook:

  • Complaints procedures
  • Client care letters
  • Dealing with consumers
  • Vulnerable clients
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