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ombudsman news

issue 82

December 2009/January 2010

season of grievances and goodwill

The traditional season of goodwill - and the time to remember others - is approaching. But this doesn't mean there has been any slackening in the flow of complaints referred to us by consumers who remain dissatisfied with the response they have received from the financial business they complained to.

Thinking about those who are important to us is something we do all year round at the ombudsman service. We are here to provide a service to consumers and financial businesses, and to perform a public function alongside the courts, regulators and government. Over the last year we have taken a number of steps - ranging from extending the opening hours of our front-line customer contact division to launching an online complaint-enquiry facility on our website - in order to make ourselves even more accessible to consumers.

We have also extended the help we provide to those smaller financial businesses that are unused to dealing with us. And, by publishing complaints data about individually-named businesses, we have encouraged those of the larger financial businesses that are better than others in handling complaints.

Following nominations from the public, we recently won the award for 'website of the year' (in succession to the BBC, last year's winner) from the Plain English Campaign - who said our website 'provides information on a complex subject in a straightforward manner and is accessible to all users'. Our website provides a valuable window on our work. And the two-way conversation available in a phone call to our customer-contact division (for consumers) or to our technical advice desk (for financial businesses and advice workers) will often help get quickly to the real nub of an issue in an individual case.

When we are called on to decide cases, we act impartially - as a judge would do in court. But, unlike a judge, we talk widely to our stakeholders about the work we do, the approach we take and how complaints could be avoided.

This can sometimes lead to a slight misunderstanding. Some organisations to whom we talk about general issues seem to think this means they can also lobby us privately about individual cases that we are called on to decide. They cannot.

When we decide cases, we do so as an alternative to the courts. We are not involved in a negotiation between ourselves and either party. We follow a fair process, giving equal consideration to the evidence and arguments provided by both sides - and then we decide. Our decision may sometimes disappoint one of the parties. That is an inevitable consequence of the important role Parliament has given us. And when businesses are handling future complaints, regulators require them to apply the results of our decisions made in previous cases - whether the businesses like them or not.

Ombudsman news is another way of seeing how the ombudsman's approach works in practice. The case studies in this issue - based on real-life complaints we have handled recently - focus on problems with direct debits, standing orders and continuous-payment authorities and on insurance disputes involving keys left in cars.

David Thomas
chief ombudsman (interim)

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For printed copies of this or any of our publications, phone 020 7964 0092 or email publications.

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.