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annual review 1 April 2002 to 31 March 2003 - annual report of the independent assessor

The Independent Assessor's role is to carry out a final review of the service provided by the Financial Ombudsman Service, in cases where the consumer remains dissatisfied after referring the matter to our service quality team. Under his terms of reference, the Independent Assessor can consider complaints about our investigative process and the behaviour of our staff. However, disagreements about the merits of decisions are expressly excluded from his jurisdiction. The Independent Assessor is authorised to make findings and recommendations for redress in cases where he believes it is justified.

During the year ended 31 March 2003, I handled a total of 206 cases. I upheld 21 of the complaints investigated (and made monetary awards in eight cases), rejected 60 complaints, and found 27 to be outside my jurisdiction. A further 54 complaints were found to have been referred to the Independent Assessor too early in the process - before the service quality team had first been given the chance to resolve the matter. And 44 cases involved enquiries rather than actual complaints.

The 21 complaints that I upheld included complaints upheld both wholly and in part. The eight monetary awards I made ranged from £150 to £450. In the other cases, I recommended either that a letter of apology or explanation should be sent - or that a particular aspect of the complaint-handling process should be reviewed.

The majority of the complaints I dealt with related to more than one aspect of the way in which the original complaint against the firm had been dealt with by the ombudsman service. Delay, failure to keep the consumer properly informed and unfair treatment of one kind or another were the most frequently cited grounds for complaint.

Complaints also frequently involved claims that the ombudsman's decision had not been properly arrived at - for example, because the ombudsman did not pay sufficient attention to a particular piece of evidence which the consumer considered to be of crucial importance. My terms of reference do not permit me to challenge the merits of ombudsman decisions. So I would only be likely to uphold a complaint such as this if there was evidence of some administrative failure, which meant that the full facts of the case were not in the ombudsman's possession at the time of decision.

Cases where I recommended that the chief ombudsman should review internal procedures included a complaint where I considered that the seating arrangements for an oral hearing had placed a clearly-distressed complainant at a psychological disadvantage. In another case, I took the view that a case-handler had been over-emphatic in her assertions about the view the ombudsman would be likely to take - with the result that the consumer was dissuaded (unreasonably, in my view) from seeking a final decision by an ombudsman.

I have noticed across the organisation some variation in the way in which consumers are given the opportunity to comment on evidence submitted by the firm. I have noticed a similar variation in how and when consumers are informed that their case is at the final stage of review - after which they can make no further representations. On both these matters, I recommended that the chief ombudsman should review the practical operation of the procedures in question.

The number of complaints referred to the Independent Assessor during the year is far too small for me to be able to draw any conclusions about the general standard of complaints-handling work carried out at the ombudsman service. However, I can confirm that the files I have investigated were on the whole reassuring in relation to the professional approach adopted by staff - and the degree of care shown by them in dealing with complaints.

Michael Barnes CBE
April 2003

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