By Natalie Ceeney
Chief executive, Financial Ombudsman Service
Natalie Ceeney says that communication is the key in a dispute
It is almost a month since I started my new role, as chief executive at the Financial Ombudsman Service - the free service set up by law to settle complaints between consumers and financial businesses.
And, with the financial year just ended, we can look back on what has been another record year at the ombudsman - both in terms of the number of people bringing complaints to the service and the number of disputes we have resolved.
Over the last year almost a million consumers have contacted us with complaints across the full range of financial products and services, from pawnbroking to portfolio management and from motor insurance to mortgages.
Happily the vast majority of the financial transactions that take place every day run smoothly, but it is important that consumers know what they can do if something does go wrong.
The business or company you think is responsible for a problem should have the chance to look into any complaint before the ombudsman steps in and decides who is right or wrong.
Many complaints are caused by misunderstandings that the business can quickly sort out, once you explain the problem.
Making a complaint to a business might seem stressful especially when it relates to your finances. So here are a few hints to help you take it one step at a time and to get your complaint taken seriously:
- What's the problem? Before you make a complaint, be clear in your own mind what you think the problem is - and how you would like the financial business to put things right for you.
- Stay calm. No matter how upset you are, try to stay civil and unflustered. You will get your points across much more clearly and effectively. Put yourself in the shoes of the person at the end of the phone, who you want to help you. Would you like someone shouting at you?
- Write or phone? If you complain by phone, make sure you keep a note of when you called and the name of the person you spoke to. If you write, put "complaint" clearly at the top of your letter.
- Keep it brief. It is always best to keep things short and to the point. Say simply and clearly what you are not happy with and what you want the business to do to resolve the problem.
- Taking things further. Remember that the business must by law have a complaints procedure that it has to follow. If you are not able to resolve matters at this stage, the Financial Ombudsman Service may be able to help.
If you have complained to a financial business, but you are still not happy, you can refer the matter to the ombudsman service.
People do not usually need specialist help to bring a complaint to the ombudsman and where possible we prefer to hear from people in their own words.
We do not judge your complaint on the quality of how you present it to us, we look purely at the issue involved.
Almost all businesses selling, marketing or advising on financial products in the UK are now covered by the ombudsman.
However, we do not cover absolutely everything. For example, there is also a separate pensions ombudsman that looks mainly at problems to do with the running of workplace pension schemes. But complaints about the sale of pensions are covered by the financial ombudsman.
If you contact us and we cannot help for some reason, we will always try to suggest some other complaints body that might be more appropriate.
We will always explain any particular rules or restrictions that may apply in an individual case and give you the chance to query anything you do not understand.
If you would like the ombudsman to look into your complaint, you will need to fill in our complaint form. This will help us understand what exactly your complaint is about. We can help you fill in the form over the phone - on 0300 123 9 123 - or you can download the form off our website.
We also provide information about our service in different languages and formats, such as Braille, BSL, large print and audiotape.
Assessing a complaint
The ombudsman settles complaints on the basis of what we consider is fair and reasonable in the individual circumstances.
Disputes with financial services firms can be stressful
If we think the business has treated you fairly we will explain why. But if we think it has treated you unfairly, and you have lost out as a result, we have the power under law to make it put things right for you.
We are a quicker and more informal alternative to the courts. But consumers who are not happy with any decision we reach still have the option of considering legal action instead.
The maximum the ombudsman can reward is £100,000. But most complaints involve considerably smaller sums of money. Our service may not suit you if your complaint involves more than £100,000.
You may also prefer to take your complaint to court, if you want to inspect all the papers personally, ask your own questions, or have a face-to-face hearing - as this is not the more informal way the ombudsman service usually aims to settle disputes.
A typical case is one when a woman returned home from work to discover her flat had been broken into and a number of items had been stolen, including some jewellery.
While her insurer said it was prepared to meet the claim, it insisted the items were replaced from a specific retailer and refused to offer a cash alternative.
When the ombudsman investigated the case, it was clear that she could not find suitable replacements for the stolen jewellery from the retailer suggested by her insurer.
Her request for a cash settlement seemed perfectly reasonable. So the ombudsman told the insurance company to pay the appropriate amount for the jewellery.
In another case, a man had just put his keys in the ignition of his car to drive to work, when his wife shouted down from the bedroom window that there was a phone call for him.
He quickly went back inside to take the call, not stopping to lock the car or take the keys with him. When he went back outside after finishing the call, his car was gone.
He made a claim on his motor policy for his stolen car. But the insurance company turned it down on the basis that the keys were in the car at the time it was stolen.
He brought the complaint to the ombudsman service. He said he thought the call had only taken around five minutes, and that he had looked out of the window to check on the car.
However, the policy wording clearly highlighted that claims made if keys were left in the car would not be covered. In the circumstances, the ombudsman said that the insurance company was within its rights to not pay the claim.
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