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issue 73

October/November 2008

turbulent times

Looking back over the past month or so, I doubt that consumers of retail financial services can ever before have been given a more vivid lesson in how unpredictably financial markets can change and how quickly trusted brands can prove hollow.

This lesson comes on top of events in recent years which have included an estimated million or so people complaining to their banks about what they saw as unfair charges. Many of these consumers discovered not only that their bank was willing to re-pay the charges when challenged, but also that the customer/bank relationship could survive the challenge without the world coming to an end.

The legal issues on unauthorised-overdraft charges are still being argued in the courts. Meanwhile, what the media described at the time as a national "re-claim" exercise has led to a growing number of empowered and experienced consumers - ready, willing and able to engage in the complaints process - with no inhibitions about taking on financial giants when it comes to making a claim.

Add to these numbers the many disappointed consumers who have discovered in recent years that the endowment they took out to pay off their mortgage is now unlikely to do so - and that only by making a formal complaint might their situation be remedied.

Add also the growing numbers of consumers who now believe that the payment protection insurance (PPI) they were sold on the back of loans and credit may have been inappropriate to their individual needs - of little value to them, but helping to contribute to the £1.4 billion of excess profits which the Competition Commission estimates the major PPI distributors have been earning in a single year.

Given these levels of consumer dissatisfaction, it is hardly surprising that claims-management companies, the consumer press and the power of the internet have helped mould a generation of confident consumers, well versed in complaining and getting their voice heard.

So as we begin our budget-planning process for the next financial year (2009/10), we at the Financial Ombudsman Service need to consider what volume of complaints we might be called on to deal with next year. Inevitably we envisage numbers rising. Everyone I meet is warning me that turbulent times breed complaints. The challenge I face is to anticipate the impact of an increasing workload and the need to gear up and expand our capacity.

In a financial world in which economists and market-watchers agree that "the impossible has become the probable", who is prepared to forecast confidently the number of complaints we will have received by the end of March 2010-

Walter Merricks
chief ombudsman

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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.