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ombudsman news

issue 84

March/April 2010

ombudsman news "Q&A" page

featuring questions that businesses and advice workers have raised recently with the ombudsman's technical advice desk - our free, expert service for professional complaints-handlers.

I was reading some information on the internet about the ombudsman but it didn't seem quite right. Then I realised I was looking at an overseas ombudsman's website. Will you warn Ombudsman news readers not to make the same mistake-

The internet makes it possible to find out about ombudsman schemes round the world at a click of the mouse - with ombudsman websites, e-news and online forums available to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

But it also means it is very easy to find yourself accessing information online that may have been specifically written for, and directed towards, a very different audience somewhere else in the world.

For example, the Australian Financial Ombudsman Service (www.fos.org.au), the Irish Financial Services Ombudsman (www.financialombudsman.ie) and the UK Financial Ombudsman Service (www.financial-ombudsman.org.uk) share a similar name, ethos and guiding principles. We are in regular contact with each other - including through the International Network of Financial Ombudsmen (INFO). But at a practical level, there are many operational differences between our three schemes, reflecting the different law, customs and practice that apply in each of our jurisdictions.

So if you are looking for complaints-related information on the internet - and you find yourself on an ombudsman website - please check carefully whose site you are actually on and where that ombudsman is based. Web and email addresses generally contain a national code which helps identify their origin (for example, au for Australia and ie for Ireland).

How can you judge a complaint made today about advice given in the past-

We do not apply today's standards to yesterday's events. We take account of all the evidence available now that dates from the time of the advice. And we judge what did - or did not - happen against the law, rules, codes and good practice that applied at the time.

As part of the information they give us about their case, either side can tell us what they remember saying or being told. Documentary evidence - particularly paperwork from the time - is often very helpful. But the existence - or otherwise - of specific pieces of paperwork does not mean we will automatically uphold or reject a complaint.

We are very experienced in spotting when hindsight has crept into an argument. Our job is to decide which side we believe has the more credible case overall - based on the facts and circumstances at the time the advice in question was given.

This often involves weighing contradictory information on the balance of probabilities. We decide what we think is more likely to have happened in the past - in the light of the evidence available now. But this is not "retrospective" decision-making. This is how a civil court would also have to resolve a dispute (unlike a criminal court where decisions are made on the basis of "beyond all reasonable doubt").

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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.