A Time of Trial: Ombudsman News

May 11, 2012   //   by Keith McDonald   //   Commentary / Editorial  //  1 Comment

Ombudsman NewsIt looks – and sounds – like a publication that exists purely to hit notoriety in the ‘Missing Words’ round of Have I Got News For You.

For all that, and its bookish layout, Ombudsman News is a surprisingly interesting read.

The recent decline in living standards, the high-publicised banking malpractices, and the ongoing technological changes that make financial management a more intricate affair, have all contributed to a surge in the number of complaints passed on to the world’s biggest arbitrator, which already employs close to 2,000 people.

And the Ombudsman News bulletin features plenty of complaint case studies, along with investigative details, the final resolution and the adjudicators’ reasoning.


It’s evident enough that the Ombudsfolk do not always side with the consumer. Undoubtedly, they take a firm stance with banks and businesses, though often for poor communication rather than malpractice, and orders for small compensation payments are frequent.

The Tube (BBC)It is an interesting insight into the process of how banks deal with issues and complaints. Recent BBC series The Tube, a behind-the-scenes view of the London Underground network, changed perspectives for many commuters who had often found themselves vexed without ever really grasping the difficulties at large.

Similarly, the transparency into the complaints, investigations and resolutions here works to broaden perspectives into the difficulties faced by such a complex financial system with its near infinite amount of potential problems.

And perhaps we are all-too-eager, as I suggested recently, to absolve responsibility for our actions.

An example that caught the eye: a father transferring money to his daughter at university entered the wrong details, and then lodged a complaint against his bank, even after it had managed to recall his money and correct his error. The Ombudsman ruled against his claim for ‘significant inconvenience’ – which itself is ironic when we consider how much more inconvenienced the bank ended up from both the customer’s mistake and then his subsequent insistance on damages.

Issue 101, released over the pressure-pad threshold of the new tax-year and new ISA season, highlighted a good number of complaints from consumers who had left it until the last minute to make transfer decisions, and were irritated that banks had not executed their demands on time.

The Ombudsman service ruled against a client who, after struggling to receive help from a bank over an ISA transfer, attempted to perform this herself, despite on-screen warnings that the tax-free status of the funds was being compromised.

Get Smart

The Ombudsman service insists that the bulletin acts as more than a simple periodical of cases and results. It is also designed to help businesses prevent future problems by allowing them to learn from previous situations where a problem has arisen.

Similarly, it gives insight into the approach a business should take to resolving problems, as well as the guilt-edged ignominy of allowing consumers to learn from others’ mistakes.

Equally, the recent edition has plenty of comments from adjudicators on the way that organisations handle complaints, highlighting defensive attitudes and circumvention, which often inflames small matters into full-blown disputes. One noted the following:

I’ve seen cases where a business actually agreed with the customer that it hadn’t handled things well. But rather than just saying sorry, it retrenched into a long complicated explanations and justifications that ended up sounding defensive.

There are also cases, well documented in recent news, of banks and credit card providers falsely rejecting compensation claims.

A case-study in the recent edition shows that a consumer’s claim made to her credit card provider under section 75 had been wrongly rejected. It is fairly clear to the naked eye that this clause of the consumer credit law is complex and oblique – something that institutions can use to their advantage.

Truth Will Out

Clearly, when rules are flouted and valid complaints are not upheld,  there are important uses for such a colossal arbitration scheme. Equally, however, this free service continues to be overburdened, not least by those who chance their arm with a complaint in the hope of bullying their way out of their own mistakes.

Anyone reading this bulletin might think twice before assuming that their claims have automatic purchase.

Common sense rarely seems to prevail nowadays. Thankfully, despite its arduous processes, the top of the complaints chain – when we finally get there – might be the closest we get to it.

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