Law guide: Complaints and disputes

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Solicitors are expected to exercise the care and skill of a reasonably competent professional. Work done by solicitors is divided into 2 categories: 'contentious' and 'non-contentious'.

Contentious work involves disputes where a court claim has started. Non-contentious work is done before a court case has begun and also includes other work done by solicitors, such as conveyancing or drafting a will.

Solicitors must register with the Solicitors Regulation Authority, which makes sure solicitors abide by professional codes of conduct and work in a competent manner.

Complaints about excessive bills

What you should be told

When you use a solicitor, they must clearly explain their costs, when their costs are likely to change and any other payments you might have to make. They must explain this from the beginning. The solicitor must also tell you your options for paying their costs, like whether public funding (legal aid) might be available or whether you can use an insurance policy.

If your matter is about a possible or current dispute, the solicitor must tell you whether the potential outcomes are likely to justify the expense or risk involved, including the risk of having to pay someone else's legal fees.

Solicitors must keep you regularly informed of the amount of costs, particularly if they're doing contentious work. They should also tell you if the costs are likely to increase.

The bill

Your bill should contain enough information for you to understand the work your solicitor has done and what you're being charged for.

If the bill is for contentious work, your solicitor can send you either a brief summary of costs or a bill containing detailed items. If you receive a summary of costs, you can ask for a bill containing detailed items of the last 3 months (unless your solicitor has already started to sue you for the money). A bill containing detailed items will replace the original summary of costs and could total more or less than the summary of costs.

Complaints about poor service

Poor service is a broad concept. It's likely to cover complaints that arise where a solicitor has:

  • Caused unreasonable delays;
  • Failed to give you a final bill;
  • Managed your case unprofessionally;
  • Not done what you instructed them to do;
  • Given you inaccurate or incomplete information;
  • Failed to reply to your correspondence or keep you updated on your case;
  • Failed to give you enough information about their charges before they start your case.

Complaints about negligence

Negligence is when your solicitor either fails to work to the same standard as a reasonably competent solicitor would, or acts in a way that a reasonably competent solicitor wouldn't in the circumstances.

Complaints about professional misconduct

All solicitors must act according to their professional code of conduct. If they don't, they may have committed professional misconduct. For example, if your solicitor commits any one of the following acts, they'll generally be guilty of professional misconduct:

  • Keeping money that belongs to you without your consent
  • Releasing confidential information about you without your consent
  • Acting without your consent for a client whose interests clash with yours
  • Discriminating against you because of your race, religion, sex, sexuality, disability or age

For more information about the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) Code of Conduct, see the Solicitors Regulation Authority.

How to complain

Initial letter of complaint

Before complaining to any organisation, you should first write to the solicitor or to the person responsible for complaints at the solicitor's office.

Solicitors' firms are required to have a written complaints procedure. They must provide this free of charge if requested. Solicitors must also make sure you're aware of the complaints procedure and of your right to complain to the Legal Ombudsman.

Solicitors must acknowledge written complaints in writing within 7 days and must send a full response within 28 days of the day you make the complaint. They must also keep you informed about the progress of your complaint.

After you have sent your letter to the solicitor, you wait at least 8 weeks to give the solicitor time to respond.

Complaining to the Legal Ombudsman

If you don't get a response after this period, or if you're not happy with the response, you can complain to the Legal Ombudsman.

The Legal Ombudsman is the body responsible for dealing with complaints about poor service received from solicitors (including negligence). It can award up to £50,000 if the poor service has caused you loss.

It doesn't deal with complaints about professional misconduct.


Bills for both contentious and non-contentious work can be checked by the court (called an 'assessment'). There are rules about when you can use this procedure; you can find out more about this from the Legal Ombudsman.

The Legal Ombudsman can also review bills for non-contentious work that are linked to complaints about poor service.

Bills for contentious work can only be assessed by the court.

See the Legal Ombudsman website for more information.

Law Society of Northern Ireland

The Law Society of Northern Ireland (LSNI) is responsible for dealing with complaints about solicitors in Northern Ireland.

The Law Society of Northern Ireland will generally deal with complaints that relate to inadequate service and professional misconduct. For more information on the complaints process and the types of complaints that the Law Society of Northern Ireland can and can't deal with, you should visit the website.

The Law Society of Northern Ireland has stringent time limits. You have six months from when the work was completed or six months from when you discovered that there was a cause for concern (whichever is later) to make a complaint to your solicitor. Once your solicitor has investigated your complaint (or 28 days have passed without a substantive response from them), if you are still unhappy, you have an additional six months in which to complain to the Law Society of Northern Ireland. If you are concerned about missing this time limit, you can contact the Law Society of Northern Ireland and ask for advice.

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