Meetings with a number of journalists last month had me scratching my head over the radically different ways the ombudsman service can be perceived within the communities we serve. On the one side, journalists from publications aimed at independent financial advisers wanted to know how I could defend an organisation that was virtually taking the bread out of advisers' mouths, 'destroying the livelihoods' of small firms and regularly 'breaching their human rights'. A few days later, meeting personal finance journalists - I was asked why we don't use our clout to condemn more publicly the 'disgracefully unjust' behaviour of firms both large and small towards consumers.
You could say that we must have got things about right if an equal amount of dissatisfaction is coming from two different points of view. But I'm not so sure. In our publicity we stress our independence and impartiality. We say we are neither a champion for consumers nor an apologist for the industry. Unfortunately, it's a little easier to state what we are not, rather than what we are - largely because ombudsmen haven't been around for all that long.
We try to level the playing field for consumers so that the outcome of disputes is determined by the merits of their case, rather than by which party has access to the greater expertise or resources. Our service is free to consumers and they bear no legal risk if we do not uphold their complaint. These features of our scheme are certainly designed to give consumers a helping hand, and can lead some consumers to think that we ought to be doing more, upholding complaints just because we might feel sorry for them. These features can also lead firms to conclude that we are constitutionally biased in favour of consumers.
So treading a path between consumer and industry perceptions is not easy. There is no agreed model or benchmark of how an organisation like ours should position itself. Since - in making decisions - we perform a semi-judicial function, one option would be to operate with a more distant style, rather like the judges, simply letting our authority speak for itself. In that case we would not have any external liaison functions, technical advice phone lines or publications, and I wouldn't be talking to journalists at all. Another option would be to operate more centre-stage, attracting a higher profile, with more distinctly-angled messages of advice for firms and consumers. But that would duplicate - and could even be seen as competing with - the role of the regulator.
By now you will be wondering how we cope with such a permanent identity crisis. The answer is simple - by getting on with the job. Most of the time, just dealing with the pressures of our workload is quite enough to be getting on with. And as time goes by, and consumers and firms get more used to what an ombudsman service is and does, we'll stop worrying. In the meantime I'll keep scratching my head.
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.