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ombudsman news

issue 123

January/February 2015

making reasonable adjustments - and meeting particular needs

Every year we hear from large numbers of people who feel they’ve been treated unfairly by a business that hasn’t adapted its services to meet their individual needs.

Where a customer’s request relates to one or more so called “protected characteristics”, businesses have a duty under law to make reasonable adjustments to remove barriers to using their services. These “protected characteristics” - which include race, disability and sexual orientation - are set out in the Equality Act 2010, which brought together previously separate legislation relating to different types of discrimination.

But consumers rarely articulate their complaint as “discrimination” - or invoke the Equality Act. More often than not, they’re simply frustrated at being unable to access the services they want or need to - and feel that the business’s processes are unnecessarily inflexible and impersonal.

As financial services are delivered across a growing number of channels - and services are increasingly “personalised” - it can be particularly upsetting to be faced with systems and procedures that apparently can’t be tailored.

The Equality Act places an additional, legal onus on businesses to meet their customers’ needs. But businesses are required to treat all their customers fairly - regardless of whether they have a “protected characteristic”. In our view, responding to customers’ reasonable requests - and delivering services in ways that are accessible to everyone - is just a question of good customer service.

In many cases we’re asked to step into, the business is aware of its legal obligations - but has overlooked a simple, pragmatic solution. All too often, the practical steps we suggest could have been put in place much sooner - avoiding unnecessary delays, frustration and inconvenience for the consumer.

These case studies highlight the range of complaints we receive - and the ways we help move things forward.

index of case studies

  • 123/7 - consumer complains that bank has failed to make reasonable adjustments - so she can't access online banking
  • 123/8 - consumer complains that bank won't provide internet banking login details in a suitable format
  • 123/9 - consumer complains that mortgage company won't discuss arrears in writing - and is insisting on phone contact
  • 123/10 - consumer complains that lender is chasing debt - despite knowing about financial difficulties and mental ill health
  • 123/11 - consumer complains that bank blocked credit card - after mistaking gender reassignment for fraud
  • 123/12 - consumer complains insurer failed to communicate with her in Polish and unfairly rejected claim after rain damage

consumer complains that bank has failed to make reasonable adjustments - so she can’t access online banking

Following an illness, Ms S lost her hearing and had problems with mobility. She went about her day-to-day activities with the help of a support worker - but was finding it increasingly difficult to leave the house herself. To help her manage her finances without visiting her nearest bank branch, she decided to start using online banking.

Ms S followed the steps on the bank’s website to set up her account. But at the final stage, the bank said she’d need to authorise the process by phone. She used the bank’s webchat option to ask if she could authorise her account by text or email instead - explaining that she was deaf, so she couldn’t use the phone. But the webchat adviser said that she couldn’t, as it wasn’t “in line with the bank’s security procedures”.

That week, Ms S’s card was swallowed by a faulty cash machine in the small corner shop near to her house. The same afternoon, she sent the bank a letter to tell them what had happened. But she didn’t get a new card until nearly three weeks later.

Although Ms S was able to pay for her shopping without a card - as she kept money at home for her support workers to use - she grew increasingly worried as her cash ran out. And without online banking to transfer money, she also couldn’t top up her bank account. Because of this, several of her direct debits bounced and the bank applied charges to her account.

Ms S didn’t think it was her fault that she couldn’t access her account. She sent the bank an email, complaining that the charges were unfair - and that she was being treated unfairly because of her disability.

When the bank responded a week later, they apologised for the inconvenience they’d caused Ms S - and said they’d remove all the bank charges. They also set out some other ways that Ms S could authorise online banking.

But Ms S didn’t think any of the options would work for her. She replied to the bank, explaining that she didn’t have a landline to use TextTalk - and she didn’t use British Sign Language. And although the bank had suggested giving Ms S’s support worker access to her account, she said that she wasn’t comfortable doing that - as she saw several different support workers.

When the bank wrote back asking Ms S to phone the complaint handler - which she’d already explained she couldn’t do - she asked us to step in, saying she felt like she was going round in circles.

complaint upheld

We asked to see the bank’s records of their contact with Ms S. These confirmed that she’d told them she couldn’t use the phone - and that this had been clearly flagged on their system.

We asked the bank about their online banking facility - and whether there was any way someone could set it up without using the phone. They told us that if someone didn’t answer the authorisation call, then an activation code would be sent through the post automatically.

It seemed to us that the bank had failed to tell Ms S that there was a more straightforward way she could authorise her online banking - which didn’t even involve them making any adjustments. We pointed out to the bank that if they’d told Ms S about this, the problem probably wouldn’t have arisen in the first place.

Looking at the bank’s response to Ms S’s complaint, it was clear that they knew about their responsibility to make reasonable adjustments. And they’d accepted that they’d taken too long to send her a new card.

But although they’d refunded the charges, the bank hadn’t recognised the unnecessary worry, inconvenience and stress Ms S had experienced while she waited for the new card. They also hadn’t acknowledged the frustration they’d caused by suggesting she should phone them - when she’d repeatedly explained to them why she couldn’t.

She’d also had the worry of not knowing when she’d be able to top up her bank account - and how long she’d have to make her cash last.

In our view, the bank hadn’t fully appreciated the significant impact of their actions on Ms S. In all the circumstances, we told them to pay her £500 - to recognise the unnecessary upset and inconvenience they’d caused her.

consumer complains that bank won’t provide internet banking login details in a suitable format

Mr O was registered as partially sighted - and managed his finances online using screen-reading software. After he upgraded his computer’s operating system, he found that the login details he’d asked his bank’s website to “remember” had been deleted - so he couldn’t access his account.

When Mr O phoned the bank’s helpline, he was told he’d be sent a new access code by post. Mr O explained that any correspondence the bank sent would need to be in a large, dark font - otherwise he wouldn’t be able to read it. The helpline adviser confirmed that the bank could do this, and that Mr O should receive the code within five working days.

When the post arrived two days later, Mr O found that the bank hadn’t adjusted their letter at all. When he phoned the bank’s helpline again, they apologised and said they’d issue another code the same day. The second time round, the bank had adjusted the font of the covering letter. But the access code itself was printed on a plastic panel - and was too small and light for Mr O to read.

Growing increasingly frustrated, Mr O rang the helpline again to complain. The adviser told him that the code had to be printed in exactly that way on the plastic panel. They offered to text an access code to Mr O - but he explained that text messages were also too small for him to read.

The adviser then suggested that Mr O ask someone to read the code to him. Mr O said he was surprised to be told that - because as he understood it, he would then be liable for any fraud on his account.

The adviser said they didn’t know how to move things forward - and neither did Mr O. He told the bank that he felt they were discriminating against their blind and partially-sighted customers. He then contacted us - asking if we could make the bank change their system.

complaint resolved

When we contacted the bank about Mr O’s situation, they told us that they knew they’d given him very poor customer service. They said that he’d always had the option to manage his account by phone - but they accepted that he should have the choice to use online banking, as he’d been doing for some years.

We reminded the bank that - aside from offering a choice - they had an obligation to make reasonable adjustments to meet their customers’ particular needs.

During our involvement, the bank said they could send Mr O the access code on a CD. They offered him £250 to cover the cost of the unnecessary phone calls, and to compensate him for the frustration and inconvenience he’d experienced. The bank also said that - following a review of their processes - they were planning to offer audio format to all their blind and partially-sighted customers.

Mr O accepted the bank’s offer - and said he was pleased that his complaint would make a difference to other customers.

consumer complains that mortgage company won’t discuss arrears in writing - and is insisting on phone contact

A few years into his mortgage, Mr G had a stroke and was registered as disabled. As he could no longer work, his income fell considerably - and he missed several months’ repayments. But once he began to receive welfare payments, he arranged with the mortgage company to pay an extra £50 a month to make up the money he hadn’t paid.

Every six months, the mortgage company reviewed the arrangement - and asked Mr G to let them know if he wanted to extend it. So every six months, Mr G wrote back to the mortgage company to say that he did.

The arrangement had been in place for a couple of years when Mr G received a different letter from the mortgage company. This said that he needed to phone them about his arrears - and that they were applying a £30 charge.

Mr G was confused by this - but wrote back to remind the mortgage company about his arrangement. He also explained that he couldn’t speak on the phone as his stroke had affected his speech - so he needed to deal with things in writing.

But a couple of weeks later, Mr G received the same automated letter - again telling him that he needed to call the mortgage company. He sent a letter back - asking the company to write to him.

When the mortgage company still didn’t respond, Mr G made a complaint. This time, the mortgage company replied. They said that if Mr G wanted to continue with his repayment arrangement, they would need to have a “discussion” about his income and expenditure. The letter then gave the number of the team he’d need to call.

Frustrated - and worried about the charges being applied to his account - Mr G contacted us. He said that he felt discriminated against - and didn’t see why a “discussion” couldn’t happen by post.

complaint upheld

We asked the mortgage company why they thought they needed to talk to Mr G on the phone. They told us that they felt the discussion would be more “interactive” that way - and that the process would take too long by post.

We accepted that, a certain way into the arrangement, the mortgage company might need confirmation that Mr G’s circumstances hadn’t changed. But we explained that even if it was their standard procedure, it wasn’t possible - let alone reasonable - to expect him to have to phone them.

We pointed out that in failing to adapt their process for Mr G, the mortgage company was in breach of equality legislation - which obliged them to make reasonable adjustments to remove barriers to using their services.

We told the mortgage company to communicate with Mr G in writing from now on. Unless something went wrong with the post, we didn’t see that a written “discussion” need take a long time. It would certainly take less time than escalating a complaint to us.

We noted that Mr G was still making the payments under his original agreement with the mortgage company. In our view, if the mortgage company had agreed to write to him from the start, they could have confirmed that the arrangement still stood - or agreed a new one - much sooner.

In the circumstances, we thought the charges were unfair - and we told the mortgage company to refund them. We also told them to pay Mr G £300 to compensate for the worry and frustration their actions had caused.

consumer complains that lender is chasing debt - despite knowing about financial difficulties and mental ill health

Mr M was in the army - but when he developed post-traumatic stress disorder, he was unable to work. Without a regular income, he started to fall behind on the repayments of a loan he’d taken out.

Worried about the interest and charges being added to the loan, Mr M decided to contact the lender to talk about the problems he was having. When he mentioned that he had post-traumatic stress, they asked him to fill out a form to provide evidence of his mental health condition, along with an income and expenditure form.

The lender told Mr M that their debt collection department would now hand over his account to a “specialist team”. They said that once he’d returned the paperwork, that team would be in touch to discuss a repayment plan.

When Mr M came to fill in the form, he found that some of the questions were triggering his post-traumatic stress. Not sure what to do, he asked his local community advice centre for help. The adviser there wrote to the lender on Mr M’s behalf - explaining the problem and asking if there was another way of getting the information they needed.

But the next time Mr M heard from the lender, it was from their debt collection department, who were chasing the debt. Mr M was worried and confused - as he’d been expecting to hear from the “specialist” team to arrange a repayment plan. Over the next few weeks, the lender‘s debt collection department continued to phone Mr M about the debt - and to apply interest and charges to the loan account.

With the help of his local advice centre, Mr M made a complaint. He explained that the situation was making his mental health much worse - and that although he was getting support, he was finding things increasingly difficult. He asked the lender if they could contact him by email from now on, because speaking on the phone made him extremely stressed.

Mr M also asked if he could have a single point of contact at the lender - so he didn’t have to explain things time and time again, which he was finding very traumatic. But when the lender replied after a couple of days, they said that as different staff worked at different times, this wouldn’t be possible.

When he got another phone call about the debt, Mr M emailed us - saying he felt the lender wasn’t interested in helping him, and he didn’t know what to do.

complaint upheld

We asked the lender for the history of the contact they’d had with Mr M. Looking at this, it was clear that Mr M had been open about his mental health - even though it had been very difficult for him to talk about it.

We were concerned about the aggressive tone of many of the lender’s letters and phone calls. We reminded the lender of their responsibility to treat their customers in financial difficulties sympathetically and positively - whether or not they’re experiencing mental ill health.

We also thought that the lender should have addressed Mr M’s concerns about the form they’d asked him to complete - rather than just passing his account back to their debt collection department.

Turning to Mr M’s request to be contacted by email, we pointed out to the lender that equality legislation requires businesses to make reasonable adjustments to help customers with specific needs. And in line with industry guidance, they needed to consider their customers’ reasonable requests about how to be contacted. In our view, even if Mr M hadn’t been experiencing mental ill health, there wasn’t anything unreasonable about his request to be contacted by email.

In the circumstances, we decided the lender had treated Mr M unfairly. We told them to make sure that they only contacted him by email from now on.

We acknowledged that it might not always be possible for Mr M to speak to the same person. But we told the lender to give him a main point of contact, and to put a clear note on his account so other members of staff would be aware of his circumstances - without him having to explain every time he spoke to someone new.

It was clear that the lender’s poor treatment of Mr M had caused him very significant distress - making his mental health deteriorate badly. The advice centre told us that he’d gone missing for two days - and that when he was found, he’d said he couldn’t deal with the lenders’ repeated phone calls.

So as well as telling the lender to refund the interest and charges they’d applied after finding out about Mr M’s difficulties, we also told them to pay him £2,500. We explained to the lender that this was a substantial amount - because we could see that their actions and attitude had had a very significant and very serious impact on Mr M.

We confirmed with the lender that the person who would be Mr M’s main point of contact would now get in touch with him to arrange a repayment plan - based on the information he could give them.

consumer complains that bank blocked credit card - after mistaking gender reassignment for fraud

Ms B had recently moved to a new flat. When she was going over her latest credit card statement online, she noticed the card was still registered to her old address.

Realising that it had slipped her mind in the move, she phoned the credit card provider - her bank - to give them her new address. The person she spoke to said her details could easily be changed over the phone. They then asked Ms B several questions to confirm her identity.

Having answered all the questions correctly, Ms B was surprised to be told that her address couldn’t be changed at that time. When Ms B asked why, the person on the bank’s helpline said that they needed to clear something up with their manager - and that Ms B shouldn’t worry for the time being.

A few days later, Ms B tried to use her card to pay the deposit for her new kitchen - but it was declined. When she phoned the bank to tell them what had happened, she was told the card had been stopped - and she’d need to go in to her local branch to verify her identity.

Ms B did as the bank had told her. But she had to phone back again the following week - after her card was declined yet again when she was out shopping. This time, Ms B was told that her account had been passed to the fraud team - and that to sort things out, she’d have to go into the branch again and get them to call the fraud team on her behalf.

When Ms B visited the branch, a member of staff took her into a room and phoned the fraud team. It turned out that the card had been blocked because concerns had been raised about the pitch of Ms B’s voice. When she’d phoned up to change her address, the person on the helpline had reported that a man had been trying to use the card. So the bank had treated any subsequent transactions as fraud.

Ms B told the member of staff that she wanted to make a complaint. She said that she’d had gender reassignment surgery three years previously - and had already given the bank her statutory declaration and medical records. She said the bank had confirmed at the time that they’d made a note on their system to show that she was no longer Mr B, but Ms B.

The member of staff apologised - and the next day, a letter arrived confirming that Ms B’s address had been updated and her card had been unblocked. But upset and embarrassed by what had happened, she asked us to step in.

complaint upheld

When we asked to see the bank’s customer notes on Ms B, we found that it was clearly recorded that she’d undergone gender reassignment.

It seemed the problem had arisen because the person on the bank’s helpline hadn’t checked the notes. If they had, we didn’t think they would have concluded that someone was trying to fraudulently use Ms B’s account.

We pointed out to the bank that because of their oversight, Ms B had had the inconvenience of finding another way to pay the deposit for her kitchen - and of making two separate visits to the branch.

And to unblock her account, she’d had no alternative but to disclose sensitive personal information to someone she didn’t know. Ms B told us that she’d found this particularly distressing. She said she was angry at having to explain herself - when she knew the bank already had the information on file.

Looking at everything that had happened, we could understand why Ms B had remained so frustrated and upset - even though, on the face of it, the bank had sorted out the original problem. The bank admitted that they hadn’t considered what Ms B had been through because of their mistake.

In the circumstances, we told the bank to pay Ms B £500 - to recognise the considerable frustration and embarrassment they’d caused.

consumer complains insurer failed to communicate with her in Polish and unfairly rejected claim after rain damage

Mrs H lived in a small flat in a sheltered housing complex. During some very bad weather, her roof was damaged - and water got in to her flat through the ceiling.

As soon as the housing association had fixed the roof, Mrs H contacted her home insurer to claim for replacing her living room carpet and several items - which had been ruined by the leak.

Mrs H was 80 and was nearly deaf - so rather than call the insurer, she wrote them a letter. She’d made a claim before when she’d been burgled - and had already let them know why she couldn’t use the phone. The insurer had also previously written to her in her native Polish - as she’d explained during the previous claim that as she was getting older, she was having trouble remembering her English

The insurer sent a loss adjuster to Mrs H’s flat to have a look at the damage. As the loss adjuster left, he gave Mrs H some paperwork she’d need to fill out to get the claim paid.

Because the loss adjuster had spoken English - and Mrs H wasn’t familiar with the insurance language he’d used - she didn’t understand what he wanted her to do. When the insurer hadn’t heard from Mrs H for a week, they wrote again to say that they couldn’t calculate the loss without more evidence about the costs involved.

But the insurer wrote their letter in English - and Mrs H still didn’t understand what she was supposed to do. Very anxious about whether more people would be visiting her flat, she contacted the warden of her sheltered housing - who phoned us on her behalf.

complaint resolved

The insurer told us that the loss adjuster had estimated the repairs would cost about £1,000. But as Mrs H “hadn’t cooperated” with them, they weren’t prepared to pay the claim.

But in our view - looking at what had happened - it should have been clear to the insurer that Mrs H hadn’t understood what she needed to do. As the insurer had known that Mrs H spoke very little English, they could have arranged for a Polish speaker to accompany the loss adjuster - or at least had the paperwork he left her with translated.

We thought if the insurer had taken these steps, Mrs H would have been able to provide the evidence to back up her claim. We didn’t agree that she “hadn’t cooperated”. The insurer’s actions simply meant that she couldn’t cooperate.

When we pointed all this out to the insurer, they apologised to Mrs H - and said they’d translate all the documents and pay the claim as soon as possible. The insurer also asked Mrs H how they could make up for the confusion and worry they’d caused by not considering her needs - and she asked them to make a donation to her local church fund.

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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.