‘My hero, my solicitor’ is the unlikely slogan for a poster campaign designed to impress upon an uncaring British public just how wonderful lawyers are. ‘Hero’ certainly isn’t the word that David Smith would choose to sum up his feelings towards his lawyer. ‘His opinion turned out not to be worth the paper it was written on.’
Smith is one of approximately 16,000 people who each year contact the Law Society, the profession’s representative body, to complain about shoddy service. He has been a television engineer since 1968, working for the same high-street retailer for more than 30 years. Over that period Smith, like many long-serving colleagues, had permanently damaged his back lugging TVs around. The extent of the harm only came to light when he slipped a disc in 1980 reaching down to pick up a pen. He has never properly recovered.
‘It sounds daft, but I didn’t connect slipping my disc with what I do for a living,’ he says. ‘It was only when an increasing number of my colleagues had similar problems, and medical evidence came to light connecting back problems with lifting at work, that it finally clicked.’
In fact, it was not until April 2000 that Smith, together with five workmates, tried to sue his employers for not providing them with any guidance or equipment for their job. They contacted their trade union which put them in touch with its lawyers. And then what happened?
‘Well, nothing really. They just procrastinated, stalled and – to be perfectly honest – didn’t appear to care,’ he says. ‘Months passed, then years and I didn’t even get to see a doctor, all I got was the lawyer’s opinion. Then last year I was shocked to discover that it was too late.’ His claim was statute-barred, meaning that three years had passed since he had knowledge of a possible claim and he had run out of time to bring the legal action.
Understandably, Smith is deeply angry about his lawyer’s inaction and has since complained to the firm and then the Law Society. After months of wrangling he was offered £250 compensation for the loss of his claim. ‘It’s just a pittance isn’t it?’ he says. ‘But I felt that it was a case of “take it or leave it”. So I took it.’
The Law Society’s less-than-heroic track-record on complaints has dogged the profession for years. In fact, it could well be its undoing. Sir David Clementi, former deputy governor of the Bank of England, is conducting a review of regulation of the legal profession which reports in December. Which?, the consumers’ association, reckons the profession’s inability to deal with unhappy clients is ‘the greatest threat to self-regulation’.
On top of that, ministers announced last month that the Law Society could face a fine of £1 million if it failed to turn the problem around. The power to impose the fine would be exercised by the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner, Zahida Manzoor, who is also the Legal Services Ombudsman.
‘The Law Society’s track record on complaints unfortunately hasn’t been good,’ Manzoor says. This year she was happy with only 53 per cent of the cases that came to her office, well short of the 75 per cent target set by the Department of Constitutional Affairs (as well as being down from a 67 per cent satisfaction rating last year). ‘That means that I’m finding against the society in almost every other case.’