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ombudsman news

issue 111

August/September 2013

making assumptions

We live in a world of snap decisions - the "like", "don't like", "vote in", "vote out" of popular culture and social media. Perhaps this is a natural reaction to information overload - and dwindling attention spans. Whatever the reason, it's so easy to find yourself expressing a strong point of view based on the last thing somebody said to you, or what you read over someone's shoulder.

The problem is, making snap decisions relies on making assumptions. And for those of us whose job it is to sort out complaints, assumptions can be the enemy of fair decisions.

This brings to mind one of the many tensions in the complaints-handling world. The more experienced we get at unravelling complex problems, the better able we are to spot patterns and get to the nub of things. Professional instinct can be so well honed that we know exactly what we're looking for - easily seeing the wood for the trees. Which on the one hand is great - in terms of making quick and efficient decisions. But on the other, the same professional instinct could lead us into the trap of making assumptions - which can result in short-sighted or superficial conclusions.

This is particularly true when it comes to the question of someone's age. We know from the cases we see that older people experience many of the same financial problems as younger people. But we also know that someone's age can be particularly relevant in certain situations.

But this depends on the individual. Some people are fine with managing their finances, others might not be. It also depends on what the complaint's about. Someone's age might be really important in a case about an investment or a mortgage - but less relevant in a case about something else.

So we can never assume. It's less about "noting someone's age" and more about listening to, and taking account of, where they're coming from - their understanding of the situation, what their intentions were, what they did to influence things.

To help us think more about how we make these sensitive judgement calls on age-related matters, I'm really grateful to Age UK and Which? for giving us their insight and perspective in this issue of ombudsman news.

The better the understanding we have of what might be relevant, the less likely we are to fall into the trap of making assumptions - and the more likely we are to make a decision that's fair.

Natalie Ceeney
chief executive and chief ombudsman

image: ombudsman news issue 111

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.