The Consumer Ombudsman: A knight in shining armour, or a delay to legal recourse?

    The Consumer Ombudsman: A knight in shining armour, or a delay to legal recourse?

    Most of us can say that at some point we’ve had a complaint about goods or services, relating to things such as retail companies, home improvement or installation services. The latest figures from Ombudsman Services suggest that in 2014, there were 66 million complaints about products and services.

    So, on 12 August 2015, the Consumer Ombudsman service was launched to join the other Ombudsman services already available in sectors such as energy, property, and telecoms.

    A Which? spokesperson said:

    “The new Consumer Ombudsman should be good news for anyone who has ever been fobbed off when complaining about poor products or service and failed to get redress.”

    The new Consumer Ombudsman welcomes customer complaints via an online form available on their website, and from the outset the scheme seems one destined to right the wrongs for the consumer.

    The scheme will operate to ensure that the Ombudsman acts as a representative for the customer, taking their complaint to the organisation or individual in question and giving them around eight weeks to resolve the problem. If the organisation is willing to cooperate, then the Ombudsman will aim to reach a resolution within ten working days.

    But despite the slightly alarming statistics above, why is it that Ombudsman Services have only just launched this service?

    One answer lies within yet more figures, which illustrate that along with the 66 million complaints from 2014, there were a further 40 million that were never pursued. However, with the large volume of law firms in the country which offer exemplary dispute resolution services, it’s difficult to comprehend why these complaints were swept under the rug.

    The feedback received by Ombudsman Services highlighted customers not having the confidence or the energy to complain with lengthy and complicated complaints procedures, and that the legal system proved too daunting, hard to access, and most of all, expensive.

    So will the Consumer Ombudsman be the answer to the customer’s plight in this apparent society of poor service and products? Only time will tell.

    The first thing to note is that the scheme is voluntary. Secondly, the Ombudsman is not a judge; it cannot force the organisation in question to follow its suggestions. The new guidelines state that:

    “If the company is unwilling to work with the ombudsman – or a resolution that both parties are satisfied with cannot be reached – the complainant will be advised on their next steps.”

    Those next steps are likely to be to contact the Citizens’ Advice Bureau and/or your preferred firm of solicitors, bringing you back to square one.

    So at the outset, the new scheme by Ombudsman Services appears to be an opportunity for the customer to attempt a more economical resolution to their complaint in the first instance. It also is an effective tool for the complainant with the smaller amount of loss, and therefore the compensation that they wish for is disproportionate.

    However, as a newly established scheme, it is likely to be a little while before the stabiliser wheels are completely removed. Crucially though, given that it holds no legal power, consumers may find themselves having wasted up to three months before approaching a solicitor to discover, finally, whether or not they actually have a claim.

    Our Dispute Resolution team is here to help you with any questions you may have.

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