AA Legal Documents
Law guide

Solicitors

Contents

Solicitors

Most of us will have to use the services of a solicitor at some stage in our lives. This might be for matters which are mostly administrative, such as the transfer of a property or drawing of a Will, or for more contentious matters such as a divorce or a personal injury claim.

Solicitors are expected to exercise the care and skill of a reasonably competent professional. They are also subject to a professional code of conduct which regulates the manner in which they should deal with their clients and the matters they handle on behalf of their clients.

While many people use the services of solicitors without complaint, problems can and sometimes do arise, resulting in clients being unhappy with the services they receive from their solicitor. Should this happen to you, it is important to know what you can do.

First step

Initial letter of complaint

Your first step would be to raise your complaint in writing with either the solicitor, or the person responsible for complaints at the solicitor's firm. You should follow your solicitor's complaints procedure, which you should have been made aware of by your solicitor when you first consulted him/her. Your solicitor's complaints procedure should also be available to you in writing, upon request. Solicitors have to handle all client complaints in terms of their complaints procedure and this service must be provided free of charge.

You should raise your complaint with your solicitor as soon as is possible after you become aware that there is a problem, but in any event within a year, as there are time limits within which you may escalate your complaint if you so wish. Should you fail to receive a satisfactory response from your solicitor within 8 weeks of your letter of complaint, you may escalate your complaint. The process of escalating your complaint may differ depending upon which ground it relates to (see Types of Complaints below for further details).

When setting out the nature of your complaint to your solicitor, you must indicate in your letter what the solicitor (or his or her firm) can do to resolve your complaint. In setting out exactly how you would like your complaint to be resolved, please consider requesting the following remedies (not an exhaustive list):

  • A total refund or a reduction of your bill, or a reasonable amount of financial compensation
  • A written apology
  • The removal of your solicitor from the case
  • Corrective action be taken in relation to your matter

Please note that there are no limitations upon the type of remedy or the amount of compensation that you may request in an initial letter of complaint. However, should your complaint proceed to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO) the type of remedy that you may be entitled to will be restricted. See below for more information on the LeO.

Complaints about excessive bills

If your complaint is about your solicitor's bill, your solicitor should treat this as any other complaint about his professional service. You might want to request your solicitor to provide you with a detailed breakdown of the bill, so that you may understand how the costs were incurred.

There are different options open to you should you not be satisfied with your solicitor's reply to your complaint relating to the bill. These options depend on whether the bill relates to contentious or non-contentious work. If the work was done in relation to legal proceedings which have begun, it will be regarded as contentious, while if the proceedings haven't begun, then any work done in relation to those proceedings is considered non-contentious. All other work done by solicitors, for instance conveyancing, setting up trusts etc. is non-contentious.

Should your complaint relate to a bill for a contentious matter, your only option would be to have the bill assessed by the court. If your complaint relates to a bill for non-contentious work, you can either have it assessed by the court or, if in England or Wales, you may escalate your complaint to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO), who will consider it as an inadequate professional service complaint (see below under Types of Complaints). However, note that once you have applied for the bill to be assessed by the court, the LeO may no longer deal with a complaint about that bill.

In Northern Ireland you can contact the Law Society of Northern Ireland for advice, as they administer a scheme that may be able to assist you provided your bill is not more than six months old and has not been paid.

Types of complaints

Complaints about solicitors are grouped into three different categories:

Poor service

Poor service (known as inadequate professional service) is a broad concept that is likely to cover complaints that arise where a solicitor has:

  • Not done what you instructed them to do
  • Caused unreasonable delays
  • Given you inaccurate or incomplete information
  • Failed to reply to your correspondence or phone calls
  • Failed to keep you updated on your case
  • Managed your case unprofessionally
  • Failed to give you enough information about his or her charges before they start your case
  • Failed to give you a final bill
  • Presented you with an excessive bill dated on or after 11 August 2009 in respect of non-contentious work
Please note that the above is not an exhaustive list and is for illustration only. If you have any questions in relation to poor service then you can also contact the Legal Ombudsman (see below).

Negligence

Negligence is when your solicitor acted for you in such a way that you suffered financial or other loss, which would not have happened had he/she taken the reasonable care that a solicitor should normally have taken. If you are unhappy about your solicitor's response to your complaint of negligence, you have two options for escalating your complaint.

1. Seek compensation for the loss you suffered due to your solicitor's negligence by approaching the court (i.e. sue your solicitor). However, in determining how much compensation to award, the court would only consider the financial loss you suffered as a result of the negligence of your solicitor. The court would not take into account the distress and inconvenience you suffered.

2. In England and Wales, you can seek compensation by complaining to the Legal Ombudsman (LeO). Any negligence of a solicitor should also amount to inadequate professional service. In assessing how much compensation to award, the LeO would consider two categories of loss. These are both the financial loss and the distress and inconvenience you suffered as a result of the solicitor's negligence. The LeO may also take any aggravating circumstances into consideration. Although there is no punitive award, the award would be higher if the negligence resulted in inadequate professional service persisting over an extended period.

The maximum amount (for both financial loss and distress and inconvenience) which the LeO may award is £30,000. However, it may also disallow all or part of the solicitor's bill (or require corrective action to be taken). On average, the awards made up to 6 October 2010 by the Legal Complaints Service, which was the predecessor of the LeO, for distress and inconvenience alone rarely exceeded £1000 and were typically much less even than that. However, escalating your complaint to the LeO is a far less expensive option than civil litigation, and where genuine financial loss has been suffered at a modest level this may represent a more cost-effective route to recovery.

Professional misconduct

All solicitors must act in accordance with their professional code of conduct. If your solicitor acts contrary to this code, then they may have committed professional misconduct. For example, if your solicitor commits one of the following acts, they will generally be guilty of professional misconduct:

  • Keeping money that belongs to you
  • Acting for a client whose interests clash with yours
  • Releasing confidential information about you (without permission)
  • Discriminating against you because of your race, religion, sex, sexuality, disability or age
For more information about the code of conduct and professional misconduct, see the Solicitors Regulation Authority in England and Wales, or, contact the Law Society of Northern Ireland for more information on 028 9023 1614.

How to escalate your complaint

Legal Ombudsman - LeO (England & Wales)

Please note that the LeO may only deal with complaints relating to legal service providers situated in England and Wales.

Before taking further action, you are advised to give your solicitor 8 weeks to resolve your complaint. If you do not hear from your solicitor (or the person nominated to manage your complaint), or you are not satisfied with his or her final response, then you may consider taking further action.

The action that you take will depend upon the nature of your complaint and you are therefore advised to contact the LeO for further guidance. Alternatively you can set out your complaint in a letter.

The LeO will either deal with your complaint themselves, or refer it to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) (which deals with allegations of professional misconduct), or may advise you to obtain legal advice so that you can consider court action.

The LeO will not deal with your complaint unless you have first complained to your solicitor and have given them at least 8 weeks to resolve your complaint. Once the 8 weeks have passed, the LeO will deal with your complaint if your solicitor has not resolved your complaint to your satisfaction.

It is important to note that time limits will apply to your complaint. Where your complaint, or elements of it, relate to poor service, you must contact the LeO within six months of your last contact with your solicitor. However, overall, you should complain to the LeO within 12 months of becoming aware of the issues that have given rise to your complaint. If your complaint, or elements of it, relate to professional misconduct, you must contact the LeO within six months of the misconduct having taken place.

If you are concerned about such time limits, then contact the LeO.

Once the LeO has made its decision, it has the power to:

  • Request the solicitor to apologise to you
  • Ask the solicitor to return your documents to you
  • Instruct the solicitor to rectify his/her work by doing more work (if doing so would resolve the complaint)
  • Require the solicitor to reduce his/her legal fees
  • Require the solicitor to pay you compensation for any financial loss or bad treatment, up to a maximum of £30,000

See the Legal Ombudsman website for more information.

Law Society of Northern Ireland

The Law Society of Northern Ireland (LSNI) is responsible for dealing with complaints about solicitors in Northern Ireland.

The Law Society of Northern Ireland will generally deal with complaints that relate to inadequate service and professional misconduct. For more information on the complaints process and the types of complaints that the Law Society of Northern Ireland can and can't deal with, you should visit their website.

The Law Society of Northern Ireland has stringent time limits. You have six months from when the work was completed or six months from when you discovered that there was a cause for concern (whichever is later) to make a complaint to your solicitor. Once your solicitor has investigated your complaint (or 28 days have passed without a substantive response from them), if you are still unhappy, you have an additional six months in which to complain to the Law Society of Northern Ireland. If you are concerned about missing this time limit, you can contact the Law Society of Northern Ireland and ask for advice.