Complainants' Review Committee flags common themes in 2003 complaints

When Law Society staff review a complaint against a lawyer and determine that no further action is required, the complainant has the option of requesting a further review by the Complainants’ Review Committee. The Committee may confirm the staff decision or refer the matter to the Discipline Committee or Practice Standards Committee, with or without recommendations.

Although the 2003 Complainants' Review Committee found that most of the 80 complaints it reviewed merited no further action, those complaints nevertheless offered lessons for other lawyers. In canvassing those complaints, three key themes emerged, as summarized below by 2001-2003 Committee Chair June Preston.

Poor communications with clients

The Committee found that ineffective communication was a recurring theme in many client complaints under review. Most commonly, a lawyer failed to confirm a client’s instructions in writing, leading to a misperception by the client about what the lawyer was doing and why.

Although there was no evidence that the lawyers in those cases acted in bad faith or with intent to do anything other than act in accordance with client instructions, the Committee noted that, if a lawyer fails to confirm instructions in writing, this can result in miscommunication, a deterioration of the solicitor-client relationship and, ultimately, complaints to the Law Society. Such complaints could often be prevented if lawyers ensured all client instructions were confirmed in writing so there is no room for misunderstandings.

Non-clients misunderstanding role of opposing counsel, or perceiving rudeness

Many of the complaints considered by the Committee were from unrepresented opposing parties who either did not understand the legal processes they were involved in or appeared to be under the mistaken belief that opposing counsel had some duty to protect their interests.

The Committee recognized that lawyers are in a difficult situation when dealing with unrepresented opposing parties, yet the frequency of these types of complaints, particularly in family law, is cause for concern. Many of the complaints included allegations of failure to respond to communications and, in almost all cases, rudeness.

Throughout 2003, the Committee referred several rudeness complaints to the Discipline Committee with recommendations that the Discipline Chair send letters of admonishment. The Committee found that rudeness reflects poorly on the reputation of lawyers as a whole. If lawyers treated everyone, including unrepresented litigants, with courtesy and respect it could go a long way toward preserving working relationships with clients and non-clients alike.

Lawyers failing to fully respond to complaints

For most of the complaints considered by the Committee in 2003, lawyers took the matters seriously and provided substantive explanations. The Committee did, however, note a number of exceptions in which lawyers provided only cursory responses and did not adequately address the issues raised by the complainants. In those instances, the Committee either wrote to the lawyer directly for more information or referred the matter to the Discipline Committee to do so.

While it was ultimately determined no further action was required, the referrals to Discipline would have been unnecessary had the lawyers provided substantive responses at the outset