THE LAW Society of Scotland and Scottish Legal Complaints Commission (SLCC) appear to be putting their differences behind them in a bid to build a better system for the handling of complaints against practitioners.

When announcing the commission’s 2018-19 operating plan last week, SLCC chief executive Neil Stevenson said the focus for the year ahead would be on “improving efficiency and proportionality” at a time when complaints against solicitors and advocates are continuing to rise.

As part of this, Mr Stevenson said that the SLCC is working collaboratively with the Law Society to identify whether any changes could be made to the 2007 Legal Profession and Legal Aid (Scotland) Act to improve the way complaints are handled.

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Law Society chief executive Lorna Jack echoed the conciliatory tone, noting that the two bodies are working with the Scottish Government because they believe “there is a real chance to take forward improvements to the complaints system over the next year”.

“At present, it can take six months for a complaint to even be admitted for investigation,” she said.

“That is in nobody’s interests, not clients’ or solicitors’, all of whom want complaints to be dealt with as quickly, fairly and effectively as possible.

“That is why we are working so hard and so positively with the SLCC to drive these reforms forward.”

This is a turnaround from just over a year ago, when the Law Society hit out at the SLCC when it announced a 12.5 per cent increase to the amount of money it was going to collect from the profession in order to fund its work.

The rise came after the number of complaints against lawyers rose by 12% in the 2015/16 year, with the SLCC noting that many of those were “complex cases that take significant resources to resolve”.

At the time Ms Jack said that the Law Society had “never experienced such anger” from its members in response to the rise.

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She repeated this sentiment in November last year, when the SLCC revealed that while the number of complaints continued to rise in 2016/17 they did so at the much slower rate of two per cent.

“When the SLCC increased the levy on solicitors by 12.5 per cent earlier this year, it provoked widespread anger and frustration in the legal profession,” Ms Jack said at the time, adding that the updated figures “raise further questions around the SLCC’s justification for that increase”.

Earlier this year, then Law Society president Graham Matthews further questioned the efficiency of the SLCC after it announced an 8.5% increase to its levy for the current financial year.

“There was a real opportunity here for the SLCC to progress major changes to the way it administers legal complaints,” he said.

“It could have looked afresh at how it operates and embrace some radical thinking to improve efficiency and cut costs.

“Instead, concerns raised in [an SLCC] consultation have been dismissed in the knowledge there is nobody to oversee or reject the SLCC’s cost rise.”

The commission appears to have taken the criticisms on board, having pledged to focus specifically on cutting the amount of time it takes for a complaint, once submitted, to be resolved.

In its operating plan the body said this would see it “re-engineer our entire complaints process, using our own version of an agile project methodology” in addition to providing further training for staff on how to use its case-management system and reporting data.

However, given that the SLCC has noted that cases are continuing to rise, it seems possible that costs could continue to rise too, at least in the short term.

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“By the end of month 11 of our operating year [2017-18] complaints remained up 6% year to date on the previous year,” it said.

“In December 2018 we will again need to make predictions for budgeting purposes, for the 2019/20 financial year.

“Many factors could change before then, but at the moment our predictive works continues to anticipate increasing complaints based on our historic trend information.”

If that does feed through into the levy for a third consecutive year it could well break the Law Society’s truce with the SLCC.