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Want to complain? Where do you go if there’s no ombudsman?

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Ombudsman services are a lifeline if you’re struggling to solve a dispute, but what happens when you can’t find one to deal with your issue? A new report reveals some severe gaps in the help that’s available.

Have you ever had a dispute with an overseas trader and not known where to turn for help? Or had a dispute with a UK trader only to find that the only place to get your case heard was in court?

If your answer is yes, it seems you’re not alone. A recent study commissioned by the European Parliament has identified several sectoral and geographical “gaps” in the provision of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) – a category that ombudsmen services fall into.

How do ombudsmen work?

Ombudsmen enable consumers to solve disputes with traders or service providers without having to go to court. In the UK most regulated sectors (e.g. energy, telecommunications, and financial services) have one.

So, if you have a problem with your bank and haven’t been able to solve it directly with them you can file a complaint with the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS). It will investigate your case and, if it decides that the bank’s acted wrongly, it will contact the bank and order it to put things right.

The decision is binding on the part of bank. You, on the other hand, can choose to reject the decision by FOS and go to court instead.

Narrowing the ombudsman gap

But the situation becomes trickier if you have a dispute with a trader in a sector that doesn’t have an ombudsman or with a business outside the UK.

In the latter case (and if the business is in another EU member state) you can contact the UK European Consumer Centre or the Financial Dispute Resolution Network which will forward your complaint to the relevant ADR scheme, provided that it exists.

When it comes to disputes with traders, you will most likely have to use a mediation scheme or the court system to solve your dispute.

So what’s happening about these gaps that have been identified? Well the European Commission is looking into how they can be narrowed and is expected to put forward legislative proposals in November. And, of course, we’ll be engaging with policymakers to ensure that these proposals improve the situation for UK consumers.

Have you ever used an ombudsman service to solve a dispute? Or been in a situation where there was no ombudsman to turn to? Do you avoid buying goods outside the UK because you’re unsure about who to approach if something goes wrong?

Comments
Member

My experience is that Ombudsmen rarely settle anything but a reference to them usually puts organisations in the mood to come to a sensible settlement.

This is because they are an excellent way of taking organisations out of their comfort zones (AKA “Customer Services”

If no ombudsman exists other ways of doing this with large organisations are:-

1 Threatening to buy a share and raise the matter at the AGM. Some firms have a special list of small shareholders who are looked on as potential troublemakers.

2 Investing £1 in an online copy of the annual return from Companies House and writing to a non-executive director at his or her personal address. This gets matters dealt with at the top.

Member

I have been going to these Ombudsmen & Commissions 1996 not once had a fair hearing they are usually funded by those they investigate so do not investigate fairly maladministrating .The Media & Consumer organisations have same unfair system as must know what is happening. I have lost £1000s as a result too find they even maladministrate appeals colluding .
Since deregulation this is only way to address matters as can’t even litigate even siding with legal services committing fraud .What do Government & elected representatitives do let admin pretend they are them to maladministrate further.
I never ever had a problem before there were Call centres & Managers & Head Offices with those not on procedures& remits could be contacted.. i used to sort things out in 10min – 1hr . Now they never sort out. Advice lines that set you up to be branded as vexatious litigant not able to access law is not acceptable. The above article is cloud cuckoo land.

Member

An article at Lexology.com refers to the existence of ombudsman overlaps as well as gaps.

Perhaps Which? should address this as well?

Member

An ombudsman’s decision isn’t legally binding and don’t be too surprised if decision arrived at is
inimical to the interests of you, the complainant and the consumer….. and then, and thereafter
if you’re still aggrieved, you SUE.

In cases where there are no adverse costs consequences, I shall always opt for a court of law at first
instance, mind you, resort to such a step also concentrates the mind of the other side wonderfully to settle…unlike a reference to the ombudsman.

Obviously not an option for everyone, least of all the faint-hearted.

Member

Thank you very much for all your comments.

@JohnH I like the idea of buying a share and turning up at the Annual General Meeting to ask a tricky question though you of course need to be dealing with a public company to take this route! As you say a letter to the right person is always a good start and will hopefully prevent you from having to approach an ADR scheme.

Regarding multiple complaints – what are known as ‘hybrid’ complaints – we agree this is a growing issue in some sectors as boundaries blur, for example legal services where the actual lawyer may not be consumer facing. Our view is that it’s up to the complaints handling bodies to work closely together to resolve consumer complaints and really make sure the consumer is not past from pillar to post.

@ArgonautoftheSeas Decisions by ombudsmen are legally binding on businesses. Decisions are, however, not legally binding on the consumer i.e. the consumer is free to go to court if he/she wishes to do so. This is a very important principle from our point of view.

Member

This is a consumer website and I was, of course, referring to the consumer in what I wrote that I had made clear… but thanks for the enlightenment about the legally-binding effect on businesses of ombudsman’s decision. But businesses involved in a (serious) dispute usually litigate rather than submit to arbitration or to an ombudsman for that matter.

If I have a complaint about maladministration OR am dissatisfied with a decision adversely affecting either my personal or proprietary interests, I’d have thought it best such an issue be adjudicated upon by a court of law rather than by a mere layman of an ombudsman who is not at all qualified in the law let alone having the requisite judicial experience.

Fairly often and to give but an example, matters the subject of a grievance centres on the relevance, admissibility and/or construction of a clause in an insurance contract that I would feel far happier having it decided upon at first instance by a judge, whether at District or Circuit Bench level, if financial limits involved come within the jurisdiction of the County Court.