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ombudsman news

issue 120

September 2014

dial "o" for ombudsman

It’s as old as the ombudsman service itself. And the ombudsman’s technical advice desk answers hundreds of questions every week - from businesses, consumer advisers, MPs and researchers.

This month, ombudsman news asks David Bainbridge, head of outreach, what it’s all about.

in a nutshell, David: what’s the point of the advice desk?

Because “complaints prevention” is such an important part of our role, we think it warrants its own helpline. We’re not just here for businesses, but also for all kinds of people advising consumers - from community advisers to charities, and MPs’ caseworkers to Trading Standards.

We’re a small team of experts, with experience of handling complaints ourselves. And we’ve got connections to other subject experts throughout the ombudsman - so whatever the problem, we’ll be able to find the answer.

We won’t “register” a complaint when someone gets in touch. We’ll listen to what’s happened - and have an informal chat about how the ombudsman might view the situation, and what the next steps could be.

It’s really down to making sure the ombudsman service only “opens a case” where we need to. Sorting things out sooner rather than later saves businesses time and money - and their customers a lot of frustration and uncertainty.

what sorts of things can you help with?

I like to think no question’s too big or too small. We hear from very small businesses - sometimes sole practitioners - who’ve never had a complaint reach us before. If they’re worried, we can explain what to expect. Or they might be wondering if we can look at a particular complaint - in which case, we can give a detailed answer about the ins and outs of our jurisdiction.

The larger banks and insurers tend to know how we work. But they still call us - very often, in fact. Usually, it’s because they’ve come across something a bit out of the ordinary in a complaint they’re dealing with - like a tricky claim, or a mistake that’s had a big or unusual impact on a customer. And they aren’t quite sure how to handle it.

We also hear from a wide range of people and organisations helping consumers at the front line. We’re asked for our view on individual situations - as well as general questions about what we cover, and our approach to certain types of complaint.

Being on the phone is just one part of our job. Out team also coordinates the ombudsman’s outreach activities across the UK - talking to people where they live and work. So the advice desk is also your port of call if you’d like to know whether we’ll be in your area soon. If you come along to one of our events, there’s a good chance you’ll meet someone you’ve spoken to.

you can help with pretty much anything, then?

Well, our ground rule, if you like, is that we won’t get into the specifics of a complaint that’s already with us - you‘ll need to talk to the person looking into it.

I should also mention that the advice we give isn’t binding. So we ask callers not to quote what we say to third parties - or to anyone at the ombudsman if the complaint goes that far.

if the advice desks says the ombudsman wouldn’t agree, does that mean it’s not worth taking things further?

On the advice desk, we only ever hear one side of the story, and it’s very unlikely we’ll get all the facts from one phone call. So we’d never say the ombudsman definitely wouldn’t agree - either with a business or their customer. That’s not what we’re here for. If an adjudicator or an ombudsman had heard both sides, the answer may well be different.

But we are here to give a healthy dose of pragmatism. We’ll be upfront if we think a business has handled something badly - or if we think they’ve already done enough. Often, a caller will realise this for themselves as they’re talking. Having a conversation - rather than staring at a pile of paper or a screen - really does seem to make the solution more obvious.

is there any advice you’d like to give people before they pick up the phone?

The ombudsman sees too many complaints that, with a bit of empathy and common sense, could have been put right so much sooner. I’d say the overriding theme of the conversations we have - and we really can’t say it enough - is that rigid procedures and tick boxes hinder rather than help.

Yes, you’re going to have to look at the file (we talk to some case handlers who haven’t!). But then look beyond the paperwork and the rulebook. Situations are never black and white - and it’s very rarely the case that one side’s completely right and the other’s completely wrong. Ask yourself, what’s really fair here? And how can you make that happen? You can have us on speed dial just in case.

the call with the cat

An insurer phoned for help with a household claim. On returning home from their summer holiday, a customer had found that a cat had left unpleasant “presents” all over their bedroom. The bed in particular was so badly damaged that it couldn’t be cleaned - so the customer had made a claim for accidental damage.

The insurer explained that they’d rejected the claim because the policy excluded damage caused by pets. The customer had complained - saying they didn’t know whose cat was culpable, but they didn’t even have one. The caller was now feeling uneasy about turning down the claim - and wanted our view.

We told the caller to think about the purpose of the exclusion in question. We suggested that it was most likely there to stop claims for damage caused by pets that policyholders themselves choose to keep.

It was possible that the situation was a bit less straightforward. For example, if someone had been house-sitting, and there was strong evidence that their pet had caused the damage, we might agree that the claim shouldn’t be paid. So the insurer might need to ask a few more questions. But we explained that, based on what we’d heard, we thought they should reconsider their decision.

the call with the “case” that wasn’t

An independent financial adviser got in touch after receiving a letter from the ombudsman service - saying that one of their customers had made a complaint. This was the first the IFA had heard of it - and they were very unhappy about being charged a case fee.

The IFA hadn’t had a complaint reach us before - so the experience was completely new. We explained that if a consumer wants us to, we can write to a business to explain why they’re not happy. But this doesn’t mean we’ve taken on the case. We reassured the IFA that we wouldn’t take things further until he’d had the chance to look into his customer’s concerns - and then only if the customer wasn’t happy. And we explained that, whatever happened, we don’t charge a fee for the first 25 cases involving a business in any one year.

The IFA was relieved to hear this - and went on to talk the complaint through with us to make sure he was on the right lines. We also let him know when our small business roadshow would be nearby, so he could meet the ombudsman face to face.

the call with the bills

We took a call from a small community charity in the North West. Someone had come into their office with a bag of unopened letters - most of which were from businesses chasing repayments. The charity had worked out that the client had more than £15,000 of debt, including council tax, utility bills, home finance and payday loans.

The caller explained that the client had lost their job and just couldn’t afford the repayments. They’d stopped opening the letters as they couldn’t cope with the stress. The charity had identified which debts were priorities - but didn’t know how to sort out the rest.

We explained that we expect lenders to treat customers in financial difficulties in a positive and sympathetic way. A good starting point would be to work out what the client could afford to repay each month - and make an offer to each of the lenders.

We told that caller that if she didn’t feel a lender had acted fairly, then she could ask the ombudsman service to step in. We talked about the sorts of complaints we cover, and gave contact details for organisations that could help with anything else - for example, problems with utility companies.

get in touch

You can reach the advice desk on 020 7964 1400 between 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday. It’s usually quicker to get an answer over the phone, but you can also email technical.advice@financial-ombudsman.org.uk.

We’re a small, busy team. And we want to focus on giving support to businesses and people who are helping consumers.
If your customer or client wants to get in touch with the ombudsman service, let them know about our consumer helpline - 0300 123 9 123.

image: David Bainbridge
David Bainbridge

ombudsman news gives general information on the position at the date of publication. It is not a definitive statement of the law, our approach or our procedure.

The illustrative case studies are based broadly on real-life cases, but are not precedents. Individual cases are decided on their own facts.