Missing numbers in consumer protection: Lawyers
This is a post from Missing Numbers, a new blog about the gaps in government data by Anna Powell-Smith. Learn more about this project, or follow it on Twitter.
One of government's most important jobs is to protect consumers from mistreatment. But how much data are different industries required to gather and publish about misbehaving firms?
I thought I'd compare how different industries do things. First up, lawyers.
Why complaints matter
Most consumer-facing industries have a regulator or “ombudsman”. If your bank loses your money, then ignores your complaints - the Financial Ombudsman will help.
Some regulators also publish data, like the total complaints they receive per year, or per firm. The Financial Ombudsman publishes this, and each year there are headlines like “Bank of Scotland receives most complaints - again” (ouch).
But some regulators publish zilch. Zero. So I’ve started to look at how the situation compares across industries. Which regulators publish data on complaints and investigations, and which don't? And why?
I’m looking at everything from pensions to plumbers, but have started with the legal profession: barristers, solicitors and conveyancers.
And finally, I've written what I think they should be doing better.
1. Complaints about poor service or fees: the Legal Ombudsman
Complaints about poor service and high fees go to the Legal Ombudsman, for all kinds of lawyer. Here, the data's okay, but it's not the most serious type of complaint.
- What data do they publish? General data on total complaints by area of law. Decisions data showing total complaints made/upheld per firm, in past year.
- Historic data? Nope, just one year.
- What's missing? Only records raw number of complaints, which doesn't tell you much unless you know how many cases the firm handled.
More serious complaints go to the professional bodies, who investigate them along with internal reports of misdoing.
2. Complaints about dishonesty or negligence: the professional bodies
For serious complaints about professional standards, there's a major difference between what barristers, solicitors and conveyancers publish.
a. Barristers: the Bar Standards Board
- What data do they publish? A decent searchable list of decisions about individual barristers
- Historic data? Kept online for 2 years, or indefinitely for suspension or disbarring
- What's missing? Does not include their chambers. No aggregate data (total number of hearings per year etc).
b. Solicitors: the Solicitors Regulation Authority
- What data do they publish? A decent searchable list of decisions about individual solicitors
- Historic data? Kept online for 3 years
- What's missing? Does not include their firms. No aggregate data.
c. Conveyancers: the CLC
- What data do they publish? Essentially nothing. “All complaints are recorded” says the information for customers (pdf), weakly. We don't know the number of complaints, the firms who have been investigated, or the actions taken.
- Historic data? None
- What's missing? Everything!
No wonder conveyancers have such a poor reputation! How does data on barristers and solicitors come to be so much better than data on conveyancers?
I've written to the CLC to ask them if they plan to make more data available, but haven't heard back yet.
This is what I think all Ombudsmen and regulators should be required to release:
- For each firm, the proportion of customers who complained: The raw number of people who complained per firm is pretty meaningless, if you don’t know whether it’s 0.001% of customers or 10%, and can't compare it with other firms. (Sometimes this might be market-sensitive data, but there are ways around that.)
- For each firm, the proportion of complaints upheld: To see which complaints were valid.
- Past data: To see trends over time.
- As much raw data as is compatible with the complainant’s privacy: To allow more meaningful analysis.
One odd thing I've spotted is that there seems to be little legal requirement on any of these regulators to release data. The Legal Services Act 2007 founded the Legal Ombudsman, but has nothing to say about data.
But perhaps other industries are different. (After all, the law is written by lawyers.) Next time: Finance! This is a heavily regulated industry, so it'll be interesting to see if there are similar blind spots.
I need your help
I’ve got several blog posts on different missing numbers lined up, but I’m really keen to collect more ideas, on any policy area in any part of the British state. If you’ve got any hints or tips, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet @darkgreener.