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annual review 1 April 2003 to 31 March 2004 - the independent assessor

The Independent Assessor’s role is to carry out a final review of the service provided by the Financial Ombudsman Service, in cases where the complainant remains dissatisfied, after having referred the matter to our service quality team. Under his terms of reference, the Independent Assessor can consider complaints about our investigative process and the behaviour of our staff. However, disagreements about the merits of decisions are expressly excluded from his jurisdiction. The Independent Assessor is authorised to make findings and recommendations for redress in cases where he believes it is justified.

During the year ended 31 March 2004, I dealt with a total of 367 referrals - an increase of 78% compared with the 206 complaints referred to me in 2002/03.

In 121 of the cases, I carried out a full review of the ombudsman service’s file - an increase of 50% on the previous year. Of the remaining 246 cases:

  • 129 involved enquiries, rather than actual complaints;
  • 101 had been referred to me too early in the process - usually before the service quality team at the Financial Ombudsman Service had been given the chance to resolve the matter;
  • 13 were outside my jurisdiction, either because they were ‘out of time’ or because they were outside the jurisdiction of the Financial Ombudsman Service; and
  • 3 involved the consumer deciding not to proceed further with their complaint.

In 43 of the 121 cases I investigated, I upheld the complaint (either wholly or in part) and in 28 of the cases I recommended that the ombudsman service should pay compensation. I should, however, make clear that in nine of these cases the service quality team had already upheld the complaint, either apologising or offering compensation. In these cases, I considered that the apology or the amount of compensation offered did not provide appropriate redress.

In the 28 cases where I recommended compensation, the amounts ranged from £50 to £900. Most involved sums of between £100 and £250, but in four cases the amount of compensation I recommended was between £500 and £900. All the recommendations I made were accepted by the ombudsman service.

The sharp increase in the number of cases referred to me during the year is, in the main, probably a direct reflection of the increase in the Financial Ombudsman Service’s own caseload - but it may also be the result of growing awareness of my role as Independent Assessor.

The most common cause of complaint is delay, followed by other service-related issues, such as failure to keep the complainant fully informed. In three cases, ombudsman service staff were unable to locate the relevant file in their archives. This led me to recommend compensation - on the grounds that the complainants were left with a sense of dissatisfaction about the process, since my investigations were restricted to reviewing re-constructed files, from which some original correspondence and documents were missing.

Six of the complaints that I upheld related to the way decisions on jurisdiction were taken. Four complaints had initially been accepted for investigation by the ombudsman service, but months later (and in one case, nearly a year later) the service had decided that the complaint was, in fact, outside its jurisdiction. In the other two cases, the complaints were considered early on to be outside the jurisdiction of the service. However, it seemed to me that the complainants had put forward good reasons for their complaints being within the jurisdiction, so I suggested that the ombudsman service should consider reviewing these cases.

Where there may be some doubt about jurisdiction, it is clearly better for the complaint to be accepted for assessment, rather than rejected prematurely. However, consumers understandably become concerned where months pass - during which they assume their complaints are being investigated - and they are then suddenly informed that their case is, in fact, not one that the ombudsman service can deal with. I understand that the ombudsman service is aware of the need to avoid this happening - and has arranged for experienced staff to be available to assess any cases where jurisdiction is in doubt, when those complaints are first considered in the customer contact division.

I received a number of complaints of bias or unfairness during the year, some of them in relation to the ombudsman’s final decision. If a complaint is not upheld, it is natural that some complainants will consider that they have not been treated fairly and may complain about this. My terms of reference specifically preclude me from questioning the merits of decisions, and I have to be very careful that I do not stray into that area. But if it seems to me that the complainant’s position has not been fairly or accurately described in the final decision, I do take the view that this is something I should draw attention to - quite separately from any relevance it may or may not have to the merits of the decision.

The number of complaints reaching me remains a tiny fraction (approximately 0.2%) of the overall caseload of the Financial Ombudsman Service. I must therefore conclude with the ‘health warning’ that - although my work can identify isolated problems - care should be taken in applying any conclusions drawn from my work to the generality of the ombudsman service casework. Comfort can at least be taken from the fact that the Independent Assessor is, so far, certainly not being overwhelmed by the volume of complaints about the Financial Ombudsman Service.

Michael Barnes CBE
April 2004

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