Explaining the ways to complain

Shredded documents Financial pressures are likely to increase for many families in 2012

At a time when some people are losing their jobs and others are losing access to credit - they still have the right, when facing injustice, to complain.

The Financial Ombudsman Service has released figures showing an increase in its workload and predicts even more cases to come in 2012.

It expects the rise in cases to centre on the areas where many are facing financial pressures. It picks out mortgages as one pinch point in the year to come.

But when do people have the right to complain and who is there to help them?

There is relatively little awareness of ombudsman services in the UK. Although one key figure has described the services as "fragmented", they remain vital - and free - for consumers who have suffered at the hands of certain public bodies or private sector services.

If a consumer has been wronged, then it is the ombudsman's job to see that person is put back in the position they would have been if the injustice had not happened.

'Unwelcome'

The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) is the biggest ombudsman in the world.

Examples of ombudsman services

  • Independent police complaints commission
  • Pensions ombudsman
  • Otelo - communications ombudsman
  • Surveyors ombudsman service
  • Financial services ombudsman
  • Parliamentary and health service ombudsman

The latest figures show that it will expect to have answered 1.2 million consumer enquiries in the current financial year, and take on 259,000 new cases.

The level of new cases in 2011-12 would be 25% higher than the previous 12 months, and it expects the trend to continue.

Cases arising from the mis-selling of payment protection insurance (PPI) continue to dominate the in-tray, but general insurance disputes have also been on the rise.

"This is not welcome news for anyone," says Principal Ombudsman Tony Boorman.

He says that the FOS wants businesses that account for the most complaints to pay the biggest levy for the service to run. For example, businesses that face up to three cases do not have to pay a fee, and the FOS wants this to be extended to 25 from April 2013.

Those facing the most PPI complaints, however, would pay more.

How it works

The FOS - as with many other ombudsman services - is a quasi-judicial body that acts as a referee in disputes that businesses or services and their customers cannot resolve.

Ombudsman sign There are a variety of different ombudsman, although the extent of their resources can differ

In general, it does not get involved until the business or public body has had a reasonable opportunity to deal with the complaint, usually about eight weeks.

If the consumer is still not happy, he or she can ask the ombudsman to investigate. This is free of charge and they do not need to have legal representation.

The ombudsman, if it decides to take up the case, will then produce a report including proposals to resolve the problem - such as compensation that would put the consumer back into the position that they would have been in.

However, consumers have their own responsibilities when it comes to getting a case heard, according to Peter Tyndall, chairman of the British and Irish Ombudsman Association. They include:

  • Keeping and submitting as much evidence about the case as possible, including paperwork and emails
  • Making sure that a complaint is focused on specifics, not just a general rant
  • Not being afraid to complain, as a business should supply the details of a relevant ombudsman

For example, the details of the energy ombudsman can be found on gas and electricity bills.

The Ombudsman - Lewis Shand Smith - says it is common for people to submit complaints before the energy company has been given time to look into the issues.

He says another misconception is that the ombudsman has the power to punish companies, or tell them to lower their prices.

'Fragmented'

Ombudsman services cover a whole host of areas - from telecommunications to housing.

Peter Tyndall Peter Tyndall is the chairman of the British and Irish Ombudsman Association

One of the most high-profile is the parliamentary ombudsman which deals with complaints to government departments and other public bodies. Tax credits generate the most complaints.

But while many areas are covered by ombudsman services, some are not - most notably transport.

This is different to many European countries, where there are regional and national ombudsman. As part of its planned accession to the EU, Turkey has been told it must have an ombudsman.

Peter Tyndall also has concerns that services are "fragmented" in the UK. He explains that on issues of tax, immigration, and even in dealings with the DVLA, consumers have to go through their MP to have their case looked at by the parliamentary ombudsman.

Meanwhile, there are inconsistencies in the devolved powers of the UK. For instance, as the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales, Mr Tyndall has the power to investigate complaints against hospitals or council-run care homes, but not complaints against independently-run hospices.

And even the ombudsman association itself has strict rules of membership, fearing that some private ombudsman services are not suitably independent from the industry they cover, or have sufficient resources to investigate cases properly.

Yet, overall, there is often an ombudsman - an independent referee - that can deal with disputes. For those who have been wronged, it can make it worthwhile to complain.

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