This complaints procedure is subject to oversight by the Board’s Customer Liaison Officer. The Customer Liaison Officer will, from time to time, conduct audits into how this complaints procedure is being implemented to ensure that complaints are being handled in a fair and transparent manner. This oversight role may mean that the CLO will, on occasion, review the handling of an individual complaint if the CLO feels the circumstances warrant such a review. In exceptional cases, where the CLO finds that the complaint was not properly investigated, then the CLO may direct that the complaint be re-investigated.
There are specific arrangements in place for managing the performance of law centre staff, in particular ePMDS and the disciplinary code, and they should be followed where any performance issues arise in respect of the service provided by staff of the Board.
In the event that a Managing Solicitor recommends that a member of a solicitors panel /barrister be suspended / removed from the relevant panel, this recommendation will be forwarded to the Director of Civil Legal Aid in the case of barristers, or the Regional Manager in the case of members of a solicitors panel, for a decision.
In the event that the Director of Civil Legal Aid/ Regional Manager, as appropriate, determines that a member of a solicitors panel/barrister should be so suspended / removed, the private solicitor/barrister who is to be suspended / removed will be advised of:-
- the reasons for the decision; and
- the right to seek a review and/or appeal of the decision to the Chief Executive of the Board within one month of the notification.
Where any issue is raised by a member of staff in relation to the performance of a barrister, the matter is to be referred to the managing solicitor who will be responsible for deciding what action, if any, to take in relation to the matter.
It will be open to a managing solicitor to take a decision, based on the professional nature of the relationship between a solicitor and a barrister, that it is not appropriate to refer any further cases to a particular barrister.
It will be a matter for a managing solicitor to determine whether and to what extent any issue of performance should be referred to the individual barrister.
If the Director of Civil Legal Aid/Regional Manager, as appropriate, considers that the nature of the complaint is such that a formal investigation is required into the behaviour of the member of staff/member of a solicitors panel/barrister, such an investigation will be carried out by a person appointed by the Chief Executive. In carrying out such an investigation, due regard will be had to the need for fair procedures and all relevant material will be provided to the individual staff member/member of a solicitors panel/barrister and to the relevant managing solicitor, if appropriate. Any findings in relation to a staff member shall be referred to the staff member’s immediate line manager. Any findings relating to a member of a solicitors panel or barrister will be referred to the Director of Legal Aid.
Civil Operations shall maintain a complaint database containing details of the progress of the complaint.
The complaint database and any accompanying electronic folders should contain information such as
- Complainant details
- Issues raised and action taken
- It should also contain in chronological order, any correspondence about the complaint, notes of meetings and telephone calls (both external and internal).
Civil Operations should ensure that the complaint is available for review by the Ombudsman, if required. Any hard copy documents can be scanned and there is no requirement to keep hard copy documents provided they have been scanned and properly stored in an electronic file. Where documents relate to a law centre file the documents should be uploaded to that file by the complaints officer in addition to being kept on an electronic complaints file.
The Complaints database shall contain information on the complaint which includes:
- Category or nature of the complaint
- Action taken to resolve the complain
- The outcome of the complaint and whether the complainant was satisfied with the outcome
The database should also include
- The date of receipt of the complaint
- The date of the acknowledgement letter
- The date the solicitor/managing solicitor/Regional Manager or Director of Civil Legal Aid is copied with the complaint
- The date of the substantive response to the complainant
- The date the complainant sought a review, if applicable
- The date of the response to the complainant regarding any review
The complaints officer shall maintain the database accurately and it shall be made available to the internal audit function. The onus will be on the managing solicitor/Regional Manager to ensure that the complaints that they receive are dealt with in accordance with these procedures. Senior management and the Board will also be provided with regular reports on the number and the type of complaints received; the findings of any investigations; and any actions taken as a result. Particular attention should be paid to the narrative within complaints’ data as this can be used to improve the organisation and our effectiveness.
Complaints against a member of a solicitors panel may be received locally in law centres or by Head Office. These must be forwarded to the complaints officer within five days of receipt. In accordance with the above procedure, the complaints officer will acknowledge receipt of the complaint to the complainant within five days of receipt. The Regional Manager shall investigate the complaint.
If a verbal complaint is made to the Board or any of its law centres, every effort should be made to resolve the complaint informally and without recourse to the formal procedures set out below. If it is not possible to resolve a verbal complaint informally, the complainant should be asked to put the complaint in writing and advised that only complaints that have been made in writing will be considered formally by the Board. Where there are language difficulties, the person should be asked to write the complaint in his/her language, which can then be translated. Where there are literacy problems, appropriate assistance should be provided to enable the complaint to be put in writing.
Procedure 7.2 – Dealing with a person who wishes to make a complaint by telephone or in person.
Complaints are made from time to time against:-
- other staff of the Board
- private practitioners on the Board’s panels
In addition, complaints may be received about the customer’s experience in using the Board services, for example, in relation to accessibility, premises, and facilities.
The procedures to be operated by the Board for dealing with complaints, requests for change of solicitor and performance issues are set out below and have regard to the need for fair procedures, while ensuring the provision of a quality service to all legally-aided persons. The standard operating procedure in matters of this nature is that all communication should be in writing (letter or email), so as to ensure there is a clear record of the communication.
The procedures may need to be read in conjunction with those set out in section 5 relating to requests for a change of solicitor as the two issues will frequently be interlinked. A request for a change of solicitor will often include reasons for the request, including that the applicant is not happy with the service the solicitor is providing. The handling of the request for the change of solicitor in these circumstances may also involve handling a complaint. In many cases the situation may be resolved by all parties agreeing that there be a change of solicitor. Nevertheless, there may still be issues of concern for the Board relating to performance/service delivery and these may need to be properly investigated. In circumstances where a complainant insists that both the request for a change of solicitor and complaint are formally dealt with under the Board’s procedures then both procedures may be applied in parallel. It should be emphasised that the complainant will have the possibility of having the handling of the complaint reviewed under the complaints procedure and appealing a decision to refuse the request for the change of solicitor to the Appeals Committee of the Board.
Complaints are sensitive! If you receive a verbal complaint listen carefully and be calm and polite to the person making the complaint.
In considering complaints, regard must be had to:
- the Civil Legal Aid Act, 1995, and the Civil Legal Aid Regulations;
- the Terms and Conditions of the Solicitors Panels (Private Practitioner Schemes);
- the Terms and Conditions for the retention of barristers;
- the Customer Charter
- the Customer Service Action Plan and
- the Guide to Good Professional Conduct for Solicitors (Law Society 3rd Ed. 2014).
The complainant should be made aware of a single point of contact, they should be given the name and contact details of the person dealing with the complaint as soon as possible by the complaints officer.
Complaints should be acknowledged promptly and within 5 working days from the date of receipt.
All issues raised in the complaint must be comprehensively investigated and responded to.
All points raised by the complainant and agreed at the start of the investigation should therefore be properly considered and fully addressed in the response.
Any areas of disagreement or varying accounts can be acknowledged without dismissing what the complainant says.
The decision must be formally communicated and confirmed in writing when an investigation identifies a service failure and the Board proposes to take action to resolve the issue, the response should include details of what will be done and when.
It is frequently the case that a complaint will relate to the interpersonal engagement between the solicitor and the client. In many of these instances it is very difficult, if not impossible, to make findings of fact on the complaint. The client may allege that certain behaviour or demeanour was unacceptable while the solicitor/staff member will take issue with the allegations and may maintain that the client’s behaviour was unacceptable and that the client’s unhappiness is attributable to legal advice given that the client did not like. In those circumstances, the Board may seek to resolve the issue without making any findings which may understandably displease the complainant and / or the solicitor. The staff member should also be objectively aware of whether there were grounds for a complaint. Perhaps calls were not returned, perhaps there were delays in progressing the case owing to leave, workload, etc. An acknowledgement of same and a conscious effort made to address these issues when the above has applied can remedy the complaint in the first instance and avoid a breakdown in the solicitor / client relationship.
On a limited number of occasions a client will make repeated complaints often addressed to different Board personnel. Any letter of complaint received outside of the law centre should be forwarded to the complaints officer for processing in accordance with the procedures set out above and a response should issue from the person responsible for dealing with the complaint within the time frames set out in this document.
Every effort should be made to resolve the issues as quickly as possible and not enter into prolonged correspondence.
In cases where a complaint is upheld, the appropriate manager should ensure that an action plan is drafted setting out how the recommendations will be implemented and who will be responsible for implementing them.
The investigator should establish clear guidelines to help identify the types of issues appropriate to their investigation including:
- Frontline resolution was attempted but the service user remains dissatisfied;
- The service user refuses to engage with the frontline resolution process;
- Issues raised are complex and will require detailed investigation;
- The complaint relates to issues that have been identified as high risk.
He/she should also establish the nature of the complaint, the preferred method of communication and the desired outcome.
A full response to the complaint should issue within 30 working days of receipt. If, in exceptional circumstances, the response will be delayed, the complainant should be told of this within 30 working days of receipt and should be given a revised timescale for bringing the investigation to a conclusion as well as an explanation for the delay. An update should be provided every 20 working days thereafter.
Procedure 7.3 – Dealing with a written complaint against a law centre member of staff (other than the managing solicitor), or against a barrister.
The law centre will act upon the decision of the review officer.
Procedure 7.4 – Dealing with a written complaint against a managing solicitor or member of the solicitors panel
The law centre will act upon the decision of the review officer.
These can be received by law centres or Head Office. They can come in by email or hardcopy letters received by post or dropped off by hand. A written complaint of any nature should be referred immediately to a complaints officer (by email to Complaints). A complaints officer is one or more Board staff whose function is to receive process and track complaints. They will each be members of an email group entitled Complaints.
If the complaint is received locally in a law centre then it should also be copied to the managing solicitor. There may be circumstances in which a staff member may be uncomfortable in copying the complaint to the managing solicitor in which case it can just be forwarded to the complaints officer. The complaints officer shall acknowledge the complaint to the complainant. The complaints officer will decide on the appropriate person to deal with the matter.
The acknowledgement will issue within 5 days of receipt of the complaint by the complaints officer.
If a complaint is against a managing solicitor or member of a solicitors panel then the complaints officer will refer it to the Regional Manager, as appropriate. If the complaint relates to a member of staff (other than a managing solicitor) then it will be referred to the managing solicitor for investigation).
As of 1st July 2013, the Legal Aid Board comes within the remit of the Office of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman can examine complaints in relation to the 'administrative actions' of the Board which occurred on or after 1 May 2013 only.
Common complaints which tend to be dealt with by the Ombudsman’s office are as follows:
- Failure to respond;
- Poor Communication;
- Inconsistent implementation of scheme/policy;
- Lack of fair procedures.
The Office of the Ombudsman is not however entitled to investigate the provision of legal services by solicitors of the Board or by private solicitors who are providing services on behalf of the Board.
Contact Details for the Office of the Ombudsman are as follows:
Office of the Ombudsman,
Lo-call: 1890 223030
For clients under the age of eighteen, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office may perform the same role:
Contact details for the Ombudsman for Children’s Office are as follows:Ombudsman for Children’s Office
52-56 Great Strand St
Free Phone: 1800 20 20 40 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org www.oco.ie