The Guardian is reporting this morning that the Legal Ombudsman has some sobering statistics on complaints relating to cases which go to court, and not surprisingly a huge percentage involved family law related cases and perceived unethical or poor conduct on the part of lawyers working on those cases : nearly a fifth (18%) of the 7,500 complaints made to the Legal Ombudsman related to divorce or family law matters. 

In a world where there are a great many complaints being made to the Ombudsman about a huge variety of legal sectors, that’s no small sum.

Yet more disturbing still is Adam Sampson’s continued attempts at trying to be diplomatic when it comes to lawyerly faux pas, something we have written about before and which concerns us greatly. Sampson is supposed to be running the Legal Ombudsman, which is supposed to act as a safeguard against legal malpractice, and yet he continues to run the Ombudsman as if it is part of the diplomatic corps. One only need look at the statements he makes in the article published by The Guardian, which features a report by the Legal Ombudsman called  The Price of Separation, to see how that kind of compromise creates odd double standards and leads to less than accurate perceptions of what’s really going on.

The opening paragraph of the piece sets the mood:

“Some solicitors are failing to advise divorcees to settle courtroom battles before costs rise out of control because of the “emotional rawness” of those involved, according to the legal ombudsman.”

Straight away, we are made to understand that whatever the problems the Legal Ombudsman has had to deal with, they are largely of the making of the parties that come before it, and not the lawyers who advise them. Having worked with some of the most ‘raw’ individuals for four years doing pro bono work in the family courts, we are not convinced by this argument. The vast majority of these types of cases can be diffused with the right kind of advice and to suggest that parties, who are not privy to the finer details of family law and who for the most part rely heavily on their advocates to guide them (largely because they do feel hugely vulnerable) are in a position to prolong proceedings without any balances and checks, is a horrible cop-out.

The second paragraph, which is also a statement by Sampson tells us:

“That in the economic downturn there is increasingly a tension between lawyers’ financial self-interest in prolonging legal action and their responsibility to offer clients informed advice”.

An increasing tension? Does Mr Sampson live on the same planet as we do, or is he  so frightened of spelling out what the statistics he’s gathered are telling us that he will go to embarrassingly awkward lengths to gloss over the truth? However Mr Sampson tries to paint it, the increasing tension he talks about is quite obviously the incentive to cheat clients out of their money, as profit margins get squeezed in the downturn. So why not just say it?

It also stands to reason that unethical and incompetent lawyers do not always need an economic downturn to behave badly and effectively extort money from vulnerable parties. It’s just too easy – distraught families in need of help, being frightened into spending all their savings and whatever else they have in the pot to secure their interests, which at the end of the day, is an illusion, as the system favours compromise and often in the family courts, that means no one getting their interests served.

Other offensive quotes from Mr Sampson include this nebulous, meaningless phrase “there is a tension in what lawyers do, which is particularly acute when it comes to divorce“, and this beauty,”A key legal role is to save customers from themselves…. But law is also a business, and lawyers in an increasingly competitive and financially challenging market need to maximise their returns to survive“.

How about ensuring lawyers provide a service that people actually need?

And the grand finale for this weird, macabre Sampson-See-Saw show? His ultimate statement in the article:

“This report shows that there are legitimate reasons for there to be more complaints about divorce than other areas of law. Some customers also create their own problems by letting emotions take over in the divorce process.”

The Legal Ombudsman is there to highlight poor practice and to ensure that it keeps the profession in check. Sampson’s peculiar brand of whiny diplomacy will not achieve this in the long run and sits oddly with his role, which is not a lobbying agency for the legal profession, though his latest comments would suggest it is.

Fast becoming the United Nations of the legal industry in the UK, we have yet to see the Ombudsman grow some teeth.  And the latest comments by the Ombudsman chief are both disturbing and fall foul of his remit. If Mr Sampson is so willing to mitigate poor conduct in public and promote the legal profession’s right to profit from their clients, one can only imagine what he might be capable of behind the iron doors of the ombudsman.

Adam Sampson