When Zahida Manzoor decided to impose an unprecedented fine on the Law Society of England and Wales in the sum of £250,000 for failing to handle its complaints service adequately, she undoubtedly got their attention. She also got mine! Manzoor is in a unique position; not only is she the first Legal Services Complaints Commissioner but also the Legal Services Ombudsman and whilst perhaps not looking for a fight with the Law Society; she is determined to bring its complaints handling into the twenty first century, by hook or if necessary by crook. As such I rather felt I had little choice but to interview her about her life, her passions and her challenges with the Law Society.

Zahida Manzoor was born in Rawlpindi Pakistan in 1959 and moved to West Yorkshire when she was just three years old. Her father a member of the army unfortunately died twenty five years ago. “He was my kind of inspiration” Her mother had the unenviable task of bringing up five children, including Manzoor who confessed “I must admit I was a bit of a Tomboy, cycling around and getting into all sorts of scrapes that perhaps I should not have been getting into!” Oh how times have changed!

In common with a number of my other interviewees, Manzoor is both passionate and a workaholic. “I want to make sure that there is a right, just and fair society for all. I felt that no matter what I did, I always wanted to do something for the good.  I know that sounds very idealistic but it is something that is within me.”

So Manzoor began her working life as a nurse, midwife and as a health visitor. “I moved very quickly.  I qualified in all of those roles. Let me give you an example, when I was a health visitor I worked in Durham during the miners’ strike. Once again that began to bring home the issues about public services. Where changes needed to be made. Fairness for all. Access, equity and accessibility.”

From there she went on to sit on both the NHS Policy Board and the Commission for Racial Equality, holding the position of Deputy Chairman from 1995 to 1998. She also chaired Bradford Health Authority and the NHS's Northern and Yorkshire regional executive. “We wanted to improve services in terms of access for patients and for consumers. This was really key and fundamental to me. Getting real improvements in waiting times; getting real improvements in looking at the money that was being spent; how it was being spent and where it was being spent. Real grassroots improvements in service that patients could actually see.”

She was to be rewarded for her dedication.  In 1998 she was made CBE for services to Race Relations and the Health Service and the following year voted National Asian Woman of the Year.

But arguably her biggest challenge was still to come. In 2003 the Lord Chancellor appointed her to the role of Legal Services Ombudsman for England and Wales and a year later she was also made the Legal Services Complaints Commissioner.

So before we get too carried away with all these successes I thought that I should ask about the two roles and what they were really all about?

“Well I am the Legal Services Ombudsman and in that role I assess individual complaints that come to me from consumers who are dissatisfied by the service that they received from any one of the six legal professional bodies, which includes the Law Society and the Bar Council. “

And presumably ILEX?

“Yes.  Yes it does. Those complaints, by statute, have first got to go to the individual Lawyer or Executive concerned.  They then go to their professional body and then, if the consumer still remains unhappy with the service that they received, they can refer that complaint to me.”

So it is a very long drawn-out process. 

“Yes. I sit at the apex of the complaint-handling systems as Ombudsman but I review individual complaints as the Legal Services Ombudsman.  As Legal Services Commissioner, this post really is looking at the systems and processes of the Law Society, and asking the Law Society for a plan in terms of how it will improve its complaint-handling.  I was appointed to this post as well as the Ombudsman’s posts, simply because the Law Society was failing to deliver the improvements in their complaint-handling.”

One of the improvements being sought was that the Law Society should reply to the majority of complainants within 60 days instead of the present 90 days. So before dealing with the Law Society, let me check are you happy and satisfied with ILEX’s complaints-handling?

“I do not see very many complaints coming through to me from ILEX at all.  In fact, I can not recall if I have seen one this year.  In the scale of things I really do not get any concerns or complaints in that area”

Well that appears to be excellent news. But it does sound like the two posts could constitute something of a conflict of interest. Well certainly that appears to be the view of the Law Society in the past?

“Well, can I put it bluntly?

Oh please do

“Well. Utter rubbish.  I think it is just a red herring.  I was appointed to the Legal Services Ombudsman post. The Commissioner position was advertised at the same time. If the Lord Chancellor felt it necessary, he could also appoint whoever was appointed as Legal Services Ombudsman to the role of Commissioner. He did. So the decision was made well before I was appointed.  There is no conflict of interest at all between the two.  One as Ombudsman reviews individual cases, the other one has oversight of the Law Society, fulfilling its complaint-handling and to set its targets and review its progress against the plans it submitted to me, with a view to assessing what improvements it has made in its own systems and processes and indeed what improvements it has brought about in its complaint handling.”

Asked and answered. It was in fact the Chief Executive of the Law Society Janet Paraskeva who made the comment.

“Yes I know. I am not quite sure where she is coming from. I have a role to do.  I have a job to do.  So let us talk about what the real issues are.  Which are improving performance and improving the Law Society’s complaint-handling.  Let us tackle those issues. These are the real and meaningful issues. Both in the interest of the Law Society and of the practitioner as well.”

Alright – no conflict. I get it. So what do people complain about?

“Usually about their Lawyer not following advice; following instructions; not giving costs information; not keeping them updated.  Perhaps not turning up to Court; poor communication; being rude; being overbearing; giving bad advice or giving no advice.  Not giving options. Communications; costs and the delays appear to be the biggest factor.”

Readers take note. So why do you think the Law Society is getting it so wrong?

“Well, I think, certainly the Law Society’s Council has made quite a lot of money available for its complaint-handling.”

That’s thirty-eight million pounds.

“Yes.  This seems a slightly staggering amount of money, for the number of complaints that they deal with.  Having done independent audits of the Law Society’s systems and processes, there is an awful delay, in terms of the way that those cases go through their systems and processes.  I think they can be better managed.  They need to become much more efficient in how they deal with complaints than they currently are. But perhaps they are not getting as much value out of that money as they should.  My view would be perhaps the legal profession should be asking what they're getting for their thirty-eight million.”

The Law Society estimates that it will receive between 17,000 and 20,000 complaints between April 2006 and the end of March 2007. If you do the maths that is an awful lot of money being spent per complaint.

“Well, I think you are absolutely right, Jason, to say that the Law Society needs to be looking at its processes and tightening up those. Very much so.  It needs to be looking at the flexibility of its workforce.  It needs to be looking at how many cases they have, as opposed to how many people they have in management positions.  I understand they have something like just over four hundred people in the complaint-handling service, of which I understand just over two hundred are case-workers.  Now I don’t have to hand the exact job titles or what the other perhaps nearly two hundred people do, but perhaps these are the areas that the Law Society needs to look at. I would like to see much greater improvement at a much faster pace than currently is the case.”

So why is the Law Society getting it so wrong? After all it is spending a lot of money on the problem.

“Yes. A vast amount of money on their complaint-handling.  You have to look at how many complaints the Law Society gets and that has not changed dramatically over the past five years. You would expect greater efficiency or greater turn-around times, or greater improvement in service than we are seeing. The Bar Council is better. I think the Bar Council continually tries and reviews and improves on its processes; invariably I find that it does what it says.”

You fined the Law Society a quarter of a million pounds. Which I understand was because they had submitted a plan that was inadequate for securing improvements to its complaints handling services for 1 April 2006 to 31 March 2007. I wonder whether the figure was so high because you thought the Law Society were not taking you terribly seriously.  And thus it needed to be high. A kind of hit across the brow?

 “Well yes but I do not think it was high. I think it was reasonable.  If it was high, then it would have been a million pounds.  Because of course I can fine up to a million.”

Yes I know that. But a quarter of a million pounds is still an awfully lot of money.

“I do not think that the penalty level that I set the Law Society was unreasonable.  That may well be a view that the Law Society have, but it is not unreasonable and when you look at how much overall the Law Society budget is (over £110 million) it is very, very minor. But it is reasonable. It is about the failings of the plan and that is the only way that I can make a judgment. It was based on simply that – the plan.  Not anything else that anyone else may well want to say.”

The reality may well be that the purpose of such a high fine was to ensure that the Law Society did in fact take Manzoor seriously when discussing the new improvement plan for 1st April 2006 to 31st March 2007 and when implementing it. The Law Society has now agreed that consumers will receive a substantive response to complaints within 55 days and that 94% of people who lodged complaints will have them concluded within 12 months. Amazing what a fine can do.

I have seen your proposals to get yourself sacked, so to speak.

“Well yes. The government’s White Paper in relation to legal reforms. I have taken a totally selfless position on the legal reforms. I said to David Clementi, that if we really are going to get an effective and efficient service, then the numbers of tiers of organisation should be reduced and thus my offices, both the Legal Services Ombudsman and as Legal Services Complaints Commissioner, should cease to exist.”

A brave decision

“But perfectly proper. Not because I did not feel that the positions were important, because indeed my powers will be transferred to the new Office for Legal Complaints and Legal Services Board.  Of course that is a very difficult decision to make, for both my offices and particularly for my staff.”

But the correct decision for the future of the profession?

“Absolutely. But you must have a Legal Services Board which has real teeth, so that if you need to use them, then you can, but presumably very rarely. Some people are talking about having a weaker Legal Services Board. They are wrong. If you have a strong Legal Services Board, frontline Regulators, should have nothing to fear at all. A strong Legal Services Board is a benefit for both the consumer and the regulators.”

Zahida Manzoor has certainly shown that teeth when used properly can make all the difference in her battle with the Law Society. Her vigour and passion for her work should be a credit and an example for us all. As lawyers perhaps we have a natural reluctance when a third party wishes to investigate our work or practices, especially if it is put there by an over-bearing government. But the fact is that where complaints are made they ought to be resolved, as effectively and efficiently as possible. Ideally internally and without the need for fuss or further recourse to our professional bodies. For lawyers as much as for consumers (I still remember when they were called clients) we want prompt action on problems and complaints. It does not help the legal profession, our legal profession, where we as lawyers are pilloried in the press especially when our professional bodies (and I am delighted to exclude ILEX in this analysis – but one brush can taint all) can not get it right quickly or efficiently enough.