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ombudsman news

issue 129

October 2015

finding fairness

The majority of us go through challenging or upsetting events at some point in our lives. It’s part of being human – as, I think, is the feeling that sometimes life just doesn’t seem fair. At the ombudsman, we hear from many people whose lives and livelihoods have taken an unexpected and unwelcome turn – which has resulted in problems with money or financial services. 

I’ve introduced ombudsman news before by talking about how much people rely on financial businesses throughout life – and all the rites of passage, ups, downs and changes life brings. And in some cases, it’s clear that a business can make a significant difference during a really tough period for their customer. That might mean, for example, a lender showing genuine care and flexibility towards a borrower facing a setback. Or an adviser sensitively guiding someone through the financial consequences of a bereavement.

But when financial worries come on top of existing stress, it’s probably inevitable that a business’s response won’t always be well-received – especially when it’s further bad news. I’m thinking in particular about life assurance and critical illness cover, which we look at in detail this month. If someone’s put careful thought – and money – into planning for the worst, it’s going to be upsetting if things don’t go to plan. If they’ve died, it’s the people close to them who are left to pick up the pieces. 

But the solution isn’t only ever giving people the answer they’re hoping for. That goes for the ombudsman as well as financial providers. In our independent position, we see businesses make mistakes that cause upset – and equally, we see people who simply misunderstand the limits of protection that they, or the people they love, have in place. In most of the complaints we receive about these types of protection, we decide that the business’s decision not to pay a claim – while clearly disappointing for their customer – isn’t actually unfair.

In a sense, that’s encouraging – in that it suggests, in most cases, that businesses are reaching a fair answer first time. On the other hand – whatever our official “uphold” rate – the fact we hear from thousands of people each year about these types of claims suggests things aren’t always going as well as they could.

So what needs to happen? From our experience – as we’ve said before – the value of open, sensitive and regular communication can’t be underestimated. Neither can the value of simple human reactions – acknowledging the awful time someone’s going through, instead of forgetting it among process, paperwork and jargon.

There’s also the question of how the ombudsman can make a difference when it’s life – not anything a business has done – that’s unfair. Perhaps especially where our involvement doesn’t result in a claim being paid, I think we’ve got a responsibility to listen to why people feel so let down. If we understand that – while we can’t reverse what they’ve been through – then we can give the independent answer that helps them to take stock and move forward.

And for financial businesses, I hope we can either provide reassurance that they’ve done their best by their customer – or help them to recognise and learn from what hasn’t gone well. Working together, there’s a lot we can do to make sure “the worst” isn’t any worse than it needs to be. 

Caroline Wayman

Caroline Wayman
Caroline Wayman
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.