New consumer ombudsman launched
PEOPLE unhappy with how their complaints about goods and services are being handled have a new ally in the form of the Consumer Ombudsman.
The service, which launched this week, will deal with complaints not already covered by another ombudsman - "with a focus on home maintenance, improvements or installation services and retail".
As with the other ombudsman services available in the UK, the Consumer Ombudsman will be free for customers to use.
But the Ombudsman's decisions will only be legally binding if they company they're dealing with is signed up - and that's purely voluntary.
What is an ombudsman?
Ombudsman schemes offer independent dispute resolution, providing a crucial next step in the complaints process. They're often quicker, and definitely cheaper, than going to court to try to resolve the issue.
Anyone who hasn't had a response from the company they've complained to within eight weeks, isn't happy with the response they have received, or has reached deadlock with the company, can take their complaint to an ombudsman for a fair review and decision.
The good thing about decisions made by ombudsmen is that while they're legally binding on the companies signed up to them, they aren't on us.
So if they say that mobile phone company we've been fighting with owes us a refund or compensation, the mobile phone company has to cough up.
If, however, they say the mobile phone company owes us nothing more than an apology, we as individuals can ignore that decision and proceed to court.
In the case of companies who aren't signed up to their sector's Ombudsmen, the service will often agree to look into complaints about them and attempt to work with them on our behalf.
If things don't go well, they'll advise the customer on their next steps.
Why are there so many?
Ombudsman Services, who've set up the Consumer Ombudsman, also run schemes for telecoms, energy, property and copyright complaints.
The Financial Ombudsman are a separate body providing adjudication for issues with businesses providing financial services - banks, insurance companies, credit providers and so on.
There's a legal ombudsman, a second property ombudsman, and in future there'll be one for airline passengers, set up by the Civil Aviation Authority.
Until this year, however, there wasn't an ombudsman to cover retail issues - and now there are two.
As well as the Consumer Ombudsman, which launched this week, there's also The Retail Ombudsman (TRO), which started operating back in January.
The day they opened to the public, Friday January 2nd, they received 107 complaints; by the end of Sunday 4th January they'd received more than 300.
They focus on high street and online retailers, and tradesmen, and when they launched they had about 3,000 companies signed up with them.
Ombudsman Services - who are the force behind the new Consumer Ombudsman - say they've handled more than 1.3 million complaints since they started operating in 2002. Covering several other sectors, they say they've "a wealth" of experience.
So which do I use?
Anyone needing to use one of them should find out whether the company they have the problem with is registered with either of them. This way any decision made is legally binding on that company.
Should the company in question be registered with neither, both say they'll still try to help. While not legally binding, many companies will at least reconsider their stance in the light of a decision from an ombudsman.
With both being so new, it's possible the timing of the purchase could play a part in which is more useful to the complainant.
TRO offer to handle complaints about good or services purchased on or after December 1st 2014; CO can deal with complaints about goods or services bought after January 1st 2015.
If a company tells a customer they won't take the complaint any further themselves, whether in writing or verbally, people have a year from the date they're told to raise the issue with an ombudsman.
This time limit goes up to six years - five in Scotland - if the company doesn't tell the complainant that they're going to take any further action on the issue.
Basically, should a company go silent, they're only making things worse for themselves.
As we've mentioned a few times, signing up to a consumer ombudsman is purely voluntary for traders at this stage.
That's in contrast to the situation with energy and telecoms providers, or lettings and estate agents, who deal with domestic customers.
By law these must all be signed up to an Alternative Dispute Resolution provider of some sort, and they may also be covered by an ombudsman.
For example, the main telecoms providers are often covered by either the Communications & Internet Services Adjudication Scheme (CISAS), or by the Office of the Telecommunications Ombudsman (Otelo).
Any not covered by one of those two is likely to be covered by the Communications Ombudsman.
Gas and electricity providers are covered by the Ombudsman Services' Energy Ombudsman.
Consumer organisations are pushing for more traders to sign up to the new schemes - but in the meantime the onus is on us as customers to know our rights.
We've various guides covering some of the main areas - and our guides to complaining contain some basic principles that should help whichever company is letting you down.