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Standard 5.8 on Client Complaint Procedure

Standard 5.7 | Table of Contents | Standard 6.1


The legal aid organization should establish a policy and procedure for individuals to complain about a denial of service or about the quality and manner of assistance offered including any reporting obligations under the Rules of Professional Conduct.


General Considerations

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

The nature of the policies and procedures will vary based on the nature of the organization. An organization should 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 lawyer discipline agencies or from private counsel for alleged malpractice. In particular, those who complain should not be told that they should defer seeking other remedies until their complaint is resolved by the organization, nor should the organization state or imply that any resolution of their complaint to the organization is in lieu of any other remedy.

Organization Responsibilities

Resolution of complaints by a supervisor. All applicants and clients who express a complaint should be promptly informed of how to pursue their complaint. Each organization should have a system for prompt complaint resolution by a person with supervisory authority. The organization'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 organization should recognize that the complaint procedure is an important tool for maintaining positive relations with the communities it serves and for identifying when a staff member may not be meeting the organization's standards, or when aspects of its operation are not functioning properly. The organization 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 organization should have a prominently displayed sign or handout at its intake office that advises persons seeking assistance of the complaint procedure; if intake is done online, the notice shall be available there. The notice should be written in the predominant languages in the organization's service area. An organization does not have an obligation to provide written notice to persons whose only contact with the organization is by phone or in writing. If the only contact is in writing or online, the organization should use its judgment regarding when it is appropriate to provide written notice of a complaint procedure. Legal information provided online does not call for such a notice.

Organization Grievance Committee. Individuals who are dissatisfied with the organization's actions in response to a complaint should be advised of any further recourse they may have within the organization construct. 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 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 organization 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 organization is responsible and if there is a potential malpractice claim, the organization faces a conflict between its duty to the client and the risk of jeopardizing its insurance coverage if it admits malpractice. The organization should seek advice from its coverage counsel in such situations. Similarly, if the complaint involves a possible ethical violation by a practitioner, the organization 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 organization.If it appears that a complaint involves possible malpractice or an ethical violation, the organization should consult counsel regarding how it is proper to proceed under the rules of its jurisdiction. 

Different issues are involved when a client complains about an outside practitioner to whom the organization has referred a case. How the complaint can be treated will differ depending on the agreement among the client, the organization, and the outside practitioner. The degree to which the organization 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 organization and the client, the organization 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 organization should consult counsel and consider whether the matter should be referred to the appropriate lawyer disciplinary authority.