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Time to scrap the eight-week ombudsman rule

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Written by: Emma Lunn
05/11/2019
MoneySavingExpert.com (MSE) is calling for a radical change to an “outdated and archaic rule”, which forces consumers to wait eight weeks before they can escalate a complaint to an ombudsman.

The money-saving website says ombudsmen play a crucial role in consumer protection and that its research proves that the eight-week wait time should be slashed by at least half.

Ombudsmen resolve disputes by acting as a final referee between a consumer and a company when they’re unable to settle a complaint between themselves.

For many, they are a viable, free alternative to court action across a range of services and products – including finance, energy, telecoms, legal services, healthcare and housing.

The eight-week rule

The current rules mean a consumer must first complain to the firm (e.g. their bank or energy provider), which then has eight weeks to handle their case before an ombudsman will consider the complaint.

MSE says ombudsmen should be the “gold standard” in consumer complaints resolution, but the eight-week rule is a relic of a bygone, non-digital era.

It points out that consumers can now buy travel insurance online in seconds, switch energy at the click of a mouse, and get near-instant lending decisions – so eight weeks is simply too long.

If the wait leaves someone in problem debt or marks their credit file, for example, a consumer could be left in crisis.

One energy customer told MSE: “Had to wait far too long before I could involve the Energy Ombudsman. By which time my energy company had taken two months of money from my account, which was significantly over the amount they should have taken. The energy firm simply did not respond and took the money by direct debit and I could do nothing to stop them.”

The case for a two to four-week wait time

Since MSE presented its 2017 report Sharper Teeth in parliament, recommending that the wait should be reduced to about two to four weeks, the site has gathered evidence of widespread consumer support for tearing up the rule and what the wait time should be.

In its new report Justice Delayed, MSE found that:

Nine out of 10 (89 per cent) of surveyed consumers said the eight-week period should be at least slashed in half to 28 days, or even less.

Half (50 per cent) said firms should have no more than 14 days to deal with their complaints before they have the right to take them to an ombudsman.

Just 1 per cent of respondents thought the current eight-week process was the best timeframe.

Rule “not fit for purpose”

Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, said: “We live in a fast-paced, digital world of instant communications and payments. Yet ombudsmen aren’t quick. They weren’t designed to be – they evolved in a bygone age. And within their operations was a rule stating that consumers can only go to an ombudsman with a complaint after the firm has had at least eight weeks to try and deal with it.

“It’s now abundantly clear that this rule is no longer fit for purpose. Things happen so much quicker. It allows bad situations in our rapid world to snowball out of control, having the potential to destroy people’s finances and wellbeing before an ombudsman can even start looking at what’s going on.

“It’s time for change. The eight-week rule is outdated, outmoded and should be out of here. Today’s report explains why change is needed and how it should be enacted, with robust support from the stakeholders that matter, including the ombudsmen themselves, politicians, policy makers, regulators and other consumer organisations.

“The government, ombudsmen and regulators need to urgently act on our findings. It’s time for a change in the time to complain.”

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