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ombudsman news

issue 76

March/April 2009

ombudsman news "Q&A" page

featuring questions that businesses and advice workers have raised recently with the ombudsman's technical advice desk - our free, expert service for professional complaints-handlers

Does the ombudsman service restrict its work on a complaint to the specific arguments raised by the consumer - as in legal pleadings-

The way in which consumers present their complaints to us about financial businesses can vary significantly. Some present specific reasoned arguments about the shortcomings they are complaining about. Mostly, however, the complaints that consumers bring to us are more general in nature.

Some consumers use simplified templates from newspapers and websites to pursue their complaint. Others are represented by commercial claims-management companies, some of which use standard letters that make little reference to the facts of the individual case.

This has led some businesses to suggest that the ombudsman should only look into complaints where consumers have clearly raised relevant arguments and specifically identified the legal claims they are making.

However, the ombudsman service was set up by law to resolve complaints "quickly and with minimum formality". As an informal alternative to the civil courts, our aim is to "level the playing field" between the consumer and the business.

This means we do not expect consumers to present their case to us as if they were making a set of "legal pleadings". We generally look beyond the particular way in which a consumer has expressed their complaint - to assess whether they have suffered financial detriment for which the business might be responsible. This approach was approved by the High Court in 2003 (Green Denman v The Financial Ombudsman Service [2003] EWHC 338 (Admin)). There is more information about this in our frequently-asked questions on handling cases.

Where we are satisfied that a business involved in a dispute has notice of the areas of concern they need to address, we do not consider it unfair for us to go beyond the particular points made by the consumer - in order to review the underlying grievance or complaint. We will focus on the substance of the complaint - not the precise terms in which the consumer expressed their complaint.

Ideally, of course, consumers - and especially commercial claims-management companies acting on their behalf - should try to identify the relevant points as clearly as possible when they make a complaint.

But the FSA's rules require businesses to take a responsible approach in considering complaints - however they are made. It is not appropriate or fair for businesses to interpret a consumer's points in an over-prescriptive or technical way - so as to side-step the general thrust of the consumer's concerns.

How can I find out about the ombudsman's work on complaints involving payment protection insurance-

Our online PPI resource, provides a collection of documents, reference materials and links relating to this topic.

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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.