Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 4.7 on Client Complaint Procedure

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Standard

The provider should establish a policy and procedure for individuals to complain about a denial of service or about the quality and manner of assistance.

Commentary

General considerations

Legal aid providers generally serve many clients. Over time, therefore, they will encounter persons who are denied service or who are dissatisfied with the assistance offered by the provider. The provider should establish policies and procedures for handling such complaints.

The nature of the policies and procedures will vary based on the nature of the provider. It is preferable for a provider to have an internal procedure to give it an opportunity to correct any errors without disruptive intervention by outside entities. Such a procedure can also provide a sympathetic forum for an aggrieved client or applicant who may have no other means to complain about perceived improper or inadequate service. The existence of a complaint procedure, however, should not be used to deter aggrieved persons from seeking other appropriate remedies from bar grievance committees or from private counsel for alleged malpractice.

Provider responsibilities

Resolution of complaints by a supervisor. All applicants and clients who express a complaint, whether in person, on the telephone or through other means, should be promptly informed of how to pursue their complaint. Each provider should have a system for prompt complaint resolution by a person with supervisory authority. The provider's policy should address issues related to the nature and quality of service as well as a review of denials of service to applicants.

The provider should recognize that the complaint procedure is an important tool for maintaining positive relations with the low income communities it serves and for identifying when a staff member may not be meeting the standards of the organization or when aspects of its operation are not functioning properly. The provider should seek to resolve complaints expeditiously and fairly. Often, a complaint can be resolved by a person in authority correcting the problem or providing an explanation to the person complaining of why a particular action was taken or refused.

The complaint procedure should be known by all staff so that they can promptly refer the dissatisfied individual to a supervisor with authority and responsibility to review the complaint and to resolve it, when appropriate. Participating outside attorneys and clients whose cases are referred to them should be informed of the nature of the policy and procedure.

Notice of the procedure. The provider should have a prominently displayed sign or handout at its intake office that advises persons seeking assistance of the complaint procedure. The notice should be written in the predominant languages in the provider's service area. A provider does not have an obligation to provide written notice to persons whose only contact with the program is by phone or in writing. If the only contact is in writing, on-line, or through a website, the provider should use its judgment regarding when it is appropriate to provide written notice of a complaint procedure. A web page, for instance, that provides legal information, might not call for such a notice, although the provider might for evaluative purposes solicit feedback on the user’s experience with the page. An on-line application process, on the other hand, should inform users of the procedure for expressing dissatisfaction with the services provided.

Grievance Committee. Individuals who are dissatisfied with the actions of the provider in response to a complaint should be advised of any further recourse they may have. Complaint procedures may offer the person complaining the opportunity for further review by a grievance committee of the governing body. The procedure may exclude from review straightforward matters, such as the proper application of established eligibility guidelines or of case acceptance policies that strictly exclude certain types of cases. A board level grievance committee should include both attorney and client members of the governing body.

Complainants should be offered assistance submitting their complaint to a board grievance committee, if necessary. Complainants in formal hearings should be allowed assistance presenting their complaint by a person of their choice, other than provider personnel. A written explanation of the grievance committee’s decision should be given to each grievant.

Complaints regarding representation

A complaint that challenges the quality or manner of representation can pose difficult problems. If the grievance involves a practitioner for whom the provider is responsible and if there is a potential malpractice claim, the provider faces a conflict between its duty to the client and the risk of jeopardizing its insurance coverage if it admits malpractice. Similarly, if the complaint involves a possible ethical violation by a practitioner, the provider may have an obligation to report the matter to the appropriate authority and to advise the client regarding the individual’s rights, which may be adverse to the provider. If it appears that a complaint involves possible malpractice or an ethical violation, the provider should consult counsel regarding how it is proper to proceed under the rules of its jurisdiction.

When a complaint concerns the conduct of a lawyer, ethical constraints prohibit the governing body or its grievance committee from ordering a practitioner to take or refrain from specific action. In addition, the governing body is normally restricted from access to confidential client information which it is likely to need for effective review of the grievance. The complainant should be advised, therefore, of the prohibition against disclosure of client confidences and that in order for the grievance to proceed, the client may have to waive the protections that attach to the information that has been given to the provider.

Different issues are involved when a client complains about an outside practitioner to whom the provider has referred a case. How the complaint can be treated will differ depending on the agreement among the client, the provider and the outside practitioner. The degree to which the provider can take direct action, such as looking into the facts and suggesting what action should be taken in the case or assigning the matter to another attorney, is a function of its being a party to the attorney-client relationship with the client. If there is no attorney-client relationship between the provider and the client, the provider should notify the outside practitioner of the concerns raised and informally seek to resolve the matter. If informal resolution is not possible and the complaint involves a possible ethical violation, the provider should consider whether the matter should be referred to the appropriate bar disciplinary authority.