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ombudsman news

issue 59

January/February 2007

the head ruling the heart

An especially poignant letter in my in-tray this week accuses me of being 'heartless and unfeeling'. Sent by a young widow, it asks how I manage to sleep at night, following a recent decision we made in an insurance dispute. The insurance company in question had rejected the claim she made on her late husband's life insurance policy. Unfortunately, some of the information he had given the insurer was inaccurate, and of course it is now impossible to ask him why. From her point of view, left on her own with young children, an ombudsman who can't understand her terrible plight is as worthless as that insurance policy now seems to be.

A large proportion of the disputes we are asked to settle involve life's tragedies: disability, death, bankruptcy or divorce. People turn to us in the most difficult and distressing of circumstances. And it's easy to understand their expectation that we'll naturally want to uphold their complaints and help them rebuild their lives.

Of course, our natural instinct is to want to reach out and sympathise. However, we have to decide cases on a dispassionate analysis of facts. Rather like a court of law, we must set aside our emotions and settle disputes - however upsetting - by being impartial and sticking to the objective facts of the case. And we know that this can sometimes make us seem insensitive, even callous.

It doesn't always help that we operate at a distance, rarely meeting face-to-face the people directly affected by our decisions. And although we remind consumers that an adverse decision from us hasn't affected their legal rights, the truth is that - for most people - litigation isn't a realistic option. If we turn them down, that's the end of the road. This makes us particularly mindful of the impact our decisions can have.

I'll be answering the letter, explaining why I can't overturn the decision in her case. But I rather doubt that my reply will seem at all convincing in the circumstances.

Walter Merricks
chief ombudsman

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ombudsman news issue 59 [PDF format]

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.