Most of us will have to use the services of a solicitor at some stage. This might be for simple matters, such as the purchase of a house, or much more contentious matters involving a divorce or personal injury. Solicitors are paid by their clients to do a proper job and can be expected to exercise the care and skill of a reasonably competent professional.

While many people use the services of solicitors without complaint, there are problems that can arise - for example, you may not be told how much the services will cost and then be presented with a massive bill at the end of it. It is important to know what to do if things go wrong.

First step

Initial letter of complaint

Before complaining to any professional body, you should first raise your complaint with the solicitor, him/herself (or the person responsible for complaints at the solicitor's firm) in writing. Solicitors' firms are required to have a process for responding to complaints which must be provided, free of charge, if asked for. Solicitors also have an obligation to ensure that they have publicised the fact that they have a complaints process.

Complaints about excessive bills

If your complaint relates to a solicitor's bill, you can ask the solicitor to itemise the charges, so that he/she has to justify each item on the bill.

The approach that needs to be taken will differ depending on the type of work that the solicitor has been doing for you. The key difference is whether the work is considered to be 'contentious' or not. This turns on whether the work has been done in relation to legal proceedings and whether or not those proceedings have begun. If the proceedings haven't begun then any work done in relation to those proceedings can be considered non-contentious. All other work done by solicitors, for instance conveyancing, setting up trusts etc. is all non-contentious.

Contentious bills can only be settled in court whereas non-contentious bills used to be decided by the issue of a 'remuneration certificate'. The remuneration certificate procedure has been dissolved and the rules about non-contentious work have not yet been finalised. At the moment, if you want to dispute a bill for non-contentious work, the solicitor must inform of your rights to have your bill assessed by a court and that they can charge interest on the outstanding amount.

Types of complaints

Complaints about solicitors are grouped into three different categories:

Poor service

Poor 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 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

Negligence is when your solicitor has either failed to work to the same standard that a solicitor would normally have done or has acted in a way that a solicitor would not have done in the circumstances.

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 then 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.

How to escalate your complaint

After you have sent your initial letter of complaint to the solicitor concerned (or the appropriate third party), you should wait at least 28 days to give the solicitor time to respond to your letter. If you do not receive a complaint after this period, or you are not satisfied with the response that you have received, you can forward your complaint to the Legal Complaints Service for them to review.

The Legal Complaints Service has stringent time limits. You must complain to the body within six months of when the work was completed or within six months of when you received the response from the solicitor. If you are concerned about missing this time limit, you may write to the Legal Complaints Service before sending the initial letter of complaint so long as your letter states that this is the reason for you writing without sending the initial letter.

Legal Complaints Service

The Legal Complaints Service (LCS) is the body responsible for dealing with complaints about solicitors.

The LCS will only deal with complaints that relate to poor service. Therefore if they receive a complaint that relates to negligence and/or professional misconduct, they will be unable to investigate the complaint for you. However, we still advise you to send your complaint to the LCS, who should do one or a combination of the following when they receive your complaint:

  • Deal with all or part your complaint
  • Refer all or part of it to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (who deal with allegations of professional misconduct)
  • Advise you to obtain further legal advice so that you can consider court action (in the case of negligence)
Legal Services Ombudsman

If you are unhappy with the outcome of the review by the Legal Complaints Service, you can forward your complaint to the Legal Services Ombudsman. You must use this letter within three months of the Legal Complaints Service's review.

Please note that if your complaint relates to negligence, we recommend that you obtain further legal advice.