In 1993, the NSW Law Reform Commission published a report entitled
'Scrutiny of the Legal Profession: Complaints Against Lawyers'. The Commission examined whether the complaints-handling system in NSW in relation to legal practitioners was adequate, or whether an alternative system was needed. At that time, the complaint-handling system, administered by the Councils of the NSW Bar Association, and the Law Society of NSW, was primarily concerned with upholding high ethical and practice standards within the profession. In other words, the Councils established the standard expected of practitioners, and when that standard was not reached, the practitioner was disciplined or removed. Because the regulatory system was discipline based and not consumer-focused, more than 90 per cent of complaints were dismissed.
After an extensive investigation, the Commission concluded that the existing system of handling complaints against lawyers did not serve the needs of complainants, the practising profession, or the community at large. The Commission recommended that major changes needed to be made to the system - specifically, that it be more consumer oriented; that an independent regulatory body be established to oversee the complaints regime and that a new category of complaints referred to as 'consumer disputes' should be created.
On 1 July 1994, the Office of the Legal Services Commissioner (OLSC) began operations. The OLSC was established as part of a co-regulatory system with the Law Society of NSW and the NSW Bar Association to resolve disputes and investigate complaints about professional conduct.
Noting the Commission's recommendations the OLSC made fundamental changes to the way in which complaints were dealt with. Such measures included developing and maintaining effective consumer dispute resolution processes; promoting compliance with high professional and ethical standards; encouraging an improved client focus within the profession to reduce causes for complaint; and promoting realistic community expectations of the legal system.
By adopting these measures, we have, in fact, seen a reduction in the number of complaints being made about solicitors and barristers since the OLSC was established.
During the first year of operation in 1994 the OLSC received 2,801 written complaints and 6,700 inquiry calls. In 2013-2014 the OLSC received 2,528 written complaints and 8,026 inquiry calls. The number of written complaints we have received over the years has remained virtually static. This is particularly impressive when one considers the increase in the number of the members of the legal profession from about 12,000 to over 30,000 for that period.