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ombudsman news

issue 77

May/June 2009

"consumer responsibilities"

Some parts of the financial services industry have been talking about what they call "consumer responsibilities" - and pressing the Financial Services Authority (FSA) to say more about this. There are certainly many things that prudent consumers should do, in their own interests, and greater publicity for these things can only be welcome. But the law actually imposes few obligations on consumers - and the FSA itself has no power to impose obligations on them.

A topic often raised with me is whether consumers have a responsibility only to complain if their experiences absolutely justify their doing so. But the unfettered right of consumers to complain - and the obligation on financial businesses to examine and respond to consumer complaints - is very clear. Now is perhaps not the best time for anyone to be suggesting that the right of individuals to raise a complaint should be restricted - as the ombudsman service has just recorded the highest-ever proportion of disputes upheld in favour of consumers.

But should claims-management companies, who can be assumed to be knowledgeable, be more careful and selective - and bear some responsibility if the complaints they sponsor are unjustified- Lord Hunt, in his review of our service, definitely thought so. The scatter-gun approach used by a few claims-management companies - firing off unspecific complaints about any and every product a consumer may have, without identifying what they are or what their client is concerned about - is understandably criticised.

But the principle of "consumer responsibility"- whatever it may mean - should not allow a firm that behaves badly to shift the blame onto its victims by blaming them for being too gullible.

For nearly ten years the ombudsman service has been successfully holding the balance by applying well-established tests of fairness and reasonableness in the individual circumstances of particular disputes. I am confident it will continue to do so for the next ten years - and more.

Walter Merricks
chief ombudsman

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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.