An ombudsman is an independent service that deals with a complaint you may have with an organisation if that organisation hasn't been able to satisfactorily deal with your complaint.

Ombudsmen schemes tend to cover a particular industry or sector, including private companies and public or governmental organisations. 

Ombudsman schemes are free for consumers to use, and are an alternative to going to court to sort out a problem.

An ombudsman acts as independent 'referee' who looks at both sides of the argument, makes enquiries, asks questions and comes up with a remedy or solution that they believe is fair.

The ombudsman will look at a case only where an individual has suffered personal injustice, hardship or financial loss because of the action or lack of action of a particular organisation.

You must show that you've tried to resolve your dispute with the company in question before taking your complaint to the ombudsman and you'll need to provide evidence of this. 

You'll need to check the conditions of the ombudsman scheme you want to use before submitting your complaint. 

There are usually some conditions including:

  • Time limits for making a complaint
  • Limits on the amount of compensation you can be awarded

If you find there are limits relating to your particular complaint, you may want to take your complaint to court. 

The main public or government schemes are:

  • The Parliamentary Ombudsman - for complaints about government departments and public bodies such as the NHS in England
  • The Local Government Ombudsman - for complaints about local councils and some other local organisations
  • The European Ombudsman - for complaints about EU organisations

The main private schemes are:

  • The Financial Ombudsman Service - for complaints about banks, investment companies, insurance companies and other financial services companies
  • The Legal Service Ombudsman - for complaints about lawyers in England and Wales
  • Ombudsman services: Communications/ Cisas - for complaints about telephone, mobile and broadband companies
  • The Property Ombudsman (formerly known as the Ombudsman for Estate Agents) - for complaints about estate agents
  • The Energy Ombudsman - for complaints with an energy company
  • The Housing Ombudsmen - for complaints about member landlords and agents

Once the ombudsman has investigated your complaint he or she will recommend a remedy. This could be telling the company to do one or a combination of the following:

  • Explain why it treated you the way it did
  • Apologise
  • Change its practices or procedures to make sure what happened to you doesn’t happen to other people in future, or
  • Pay you a certain amount of compensation

If an ombudsman receives lots of complaints about similar issues it can ask an organisation or government department to review or change the way  they work, which will improve things for many other people who have not yet approached the ombudsman.

In the public sector, organisations must co-operate with the ombudsman's investigations, but they can refuse to do what the ombudsman recommends.

In the private sector, companies tend to accept what the ombudsmen tells them to do. If they don’t, it's likely that they would get thrown out of the scheme. 

However, the FOS is different - its powers are legally binding, so a court can force a company to do what the FOS tells it to.

In the private sector, an ombudsman’s decision is final and you can’t appeal if you disagree with it. 

However, if you lose, and feel strongly that the ombudsman’s decision was unfair, you can take your case to court. 

The judge should look at your case independently of the ombudsman’s decision.

In the case of public-sector ombudsmen, you can challenge a decision only through judicial review, which is a serious and complicated process, and you would need expert legal help to do this.

Which? has launched a campaign to make complaints count in public services.

Research carried out by Which? reveals a third of people who have experienced a problem with public services in the past year didn't complain, with key reasons being not knowing who to complain to and thinking that it wouldn't be worth the effort.

The ‘Make complaints count’ campaign is calling on the government to pledge to be the champion of patients, parents and all users of public services.

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