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ombudsman news

issue 114

December 2013

sorting things out

Nowadays, trying to pin down what we mean by a "financial dispute" isn't always straightforward.

Who would have thought that a financial ombudsman would deal with problems about washing machines or car repairs? ombudsman news readers won't need reminding about the diversity of problems we get involved in because of things like section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act, or insurance claims.

If "financial" can mean a number of different things, then surely the definition of a "dispute" can be nailed down more easily? Although the legislation that established the ombudsman service talks simply about us resolving "certain disputes", and the regulator defines complaints widely, the disputes where we can exercise our formal powers are limited technically to those complaints where the financial business has issued a "final response" (or eight weeks have passed) and the consumer is still unhappy.

But of course in real life it's far more complex than this. Life rarely unfolds as a neat process. For example, at what point does a consumer move from just being unhappy to actually registering a "complaint"? And for businesses, if a customer is just trying to give you some feedback, when is it right to send them down the complaints process - and treat them as a "complainant"? And so on. Many needles, pins, and head-scratching is regularly involved in attempting to get clear-cut answers.  

So perhaps a simpler approach is to think about how and when the ombudsman can best help solve problems. Increasingly, we are finding ourselves explaining to consumers at a very early stage how things work and what they can reasonably expect. We often find that a consumer just wants an explanation, and that a good explanation can stop things escalating any further - into a full-blown complaint.

That's why people come to us at many different stages when they have a problem. What we can do to help them is not limited just to those cases we resolve after an investigation, using our more formal powers. We can also sort out many people's problems quickly and efficiently by steering them in the right direction, and telling them what steps they can take themselves to get their problem sorted.

And many people, businesses and organisations use the information we publish about our approach to get a problem sorted out - without any need for us to get involved at all.

But sometimes, just explaining things and pointing people in the right direction isn't immediate enough to get an urgent problem sorted out. This was certainly true recently when many consumers - in the run-up to Christmas - suddenly had problems accessing the money in their bank accounts.

We already had recent experience of helping guide people through the practicalities of what to do with problems when bank computers fail (see ombudsman news June/July 2012). So once again we've set up a small, experienced team to identify and help resolve the immediate, very practical problems faced by some consumers. Many of these problems might not be "disputes" in the traditional sense. But both we and the bank agree that the most important thing is doing the right thing for the customer.

Finally, you may have noticed that my picture has appeared at the top of this issue of ombudsman news. You will probably know that Natalie Ceeney recently stepped down as chief executive and chief ombudsman after four years at the ombudsman service. I'm very much hoping to live up to her exacting editorial standards in ombudsman news.

Please do get in touch (or share your thoughts on Twitter) if there are any topics you would like me to cover in the new year.

Tony Boorman
deputy chief executive and deputy chief ombudsman

image: Tony Boorman
Tony Boorman
deputy chief executive and deputy chief ombudsman

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.