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ombudsman news

issue 76

March/April 2009

frequently-asked questions about the ombudsman service

As part of an occasional series, we feature answers to some of the questions we are most-frequently asked by those smaller businesses that are covered by the ombudsman service but that do not usually have much contact with us. This information may also be helpful for newer members of staff in those larger businesses that have more frequent dealings with the ombudsman service.

what happens when a consumer contacts the ombudsman service-

The front-line staff in our customer contact division deal with all initial enquiries from consumers - and provide them with general advice and guidance on what to do if they have a complaint about a financial service or product.

If a consumer brings a complaint to us before complaining direct to your business, our customer contact staff will refer the complaint on to you. If you are then able to resolve the complaint to the consumer's satisfaction, we will have no further involvement in the case.

But the consumer can ask us to look into their complaint if:

  • you have already sent them your final response and they remain dissatisfied; or
  • you have had the complaint for eight weeks but have not sent the consumer your final response.

what information will the ombudsman need from a business-

If we receive a complaint about your business, we will contact you and tell you what information we need. We generally settle complaints on the basis of the paperwork that you and the consumer send us, so it is important that you reply as promptly as possible to any request for information.

How long we give you to reply to any request will depend on what we need from you. Sometimes we may ask for a very quick response - for example, if our query is simple or urgent, or if we are asking for information you should already have on hand from your own investigation of the complaint. We will give you longer if we know you will need to carry out your own investigation before you can give us your reply.

If reasons specific to the case in question make it impossible for you to send us information within the time limit we have given you, please tell us immediately. Don't wait until the time limit is about to run out and only then ask for more time. If you delay unduly in replying to our requests for information, we may base our decision on the case using just the information we already have.

what general approach does the ombudsman service take in resolving complaints-

This will depend on the facts of each individual case. But generally, we will first try to settle the dispute informally, through mediation or conciliation. This can be quicker and more efficient than a formal investigation. Often, just by taking a fresh look at the facts - and identifying and agreeing the key issues as we see them - we can come up with a solution that satisfies both sides.

At this stage, settling a dispute informally might involve us contacting you and/or the consumer - often by phone - to suggest a way forward or to clarify the facts and issues involved.

If we are unable to resolve the matter over the phone - or if the nature of the case makes a written explanation more appropriate - we will confirm our position in writing. This will give the adjudicator's opinion of the case and set out how, in the adjudicator's view, the case should be resolved.

In some of our more complex cases, the adjudicator may seek to resolve the dispute by issuing a formal adjudication report, which is sent to both parties at the same time. You and the consumer will each be given the opportunity to respond.

how does the ombudsman service reach a conclusion about the rights and wrongs in an individual complaint-

Our decisions are based on what we believe is fair and reasonable in the circumstances of each individual case. We take into account the law, rules, codes and good practice that applied at the time of the event complained about.

We look at all the relevant facts and arguments, ask both sides for their views, and listen to each side of the story. We may ask you to comment specifically on what the consumer has told us. Similarly we may ask the consumer for their views on what you have told us. After drawing together all the evidence, we will consider which version of events seems - on the balance of probability - to be the more likely.

In most cases, both the consumer and the business accept our adjudicator's view and the complaint is then settled. If you disagree with the view we have put forward, you should discuss matters in the first instance with the adjudicator working on your case. If matters remain unresolved, either side may ask for a review and final decision by an ombudsman. This only happens in about one in ten cases. This is also the stage where any request for a hearing would be considered.

is the ombudsman's approach similar to what a court would do-

We are an informal alternative to the civil courts - and take a different approach to resolving disputes. We rarely find it helpful or necessary to have official "hearings" - and our process does not involve sworn witnesses, cross-examinations and formal legal procedures. We generally settle complaints on the basis of the paperwork that consumers and businesses send us - rather than having face-to-face meetings.

Unlike the courts, we are not limited to looking only at the issues the consumer has highlighted in their complaint. Our approach is "inquisitorial" - which means we can ask questions to get to the core facts of the case, rather than focus just on the issues presented to us.

We tell consumers they do not need professional help to bring a complaint to us - and that we prefer to hear from them in their own words. We decide complaints on the basis of their individual facts and merits - not on who can present the most persuasive legal arguments.

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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.