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Consumer Rights.

When to take a complaint to the ombudsman

Dealing with a financial complaint can be a tricky and confusing business. Here we talk you through taking your financial complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service.
Which?Editorial team
When to take a complaint to the ombudsman

What is an ombudsman?

For more information on what an ombudsman is and how it can help you, watch this short video from the Financial Ombudsman Service. 

When to use the ombudsman

An ombudsman is an independent service that can help you deal with an unresolved complaint you might have with an organisation. 

Ombudsman services are also called alternative dispute resolution (ADR) schemes.

You need to fully pursue the internal complaints process of the company you're in dispute with before you go to the ombudsman. 

If the company refuses to do what you ask to sort out the problem, you should ask for a ‘letter of deadlock’ to show you've done all you can to resolve your complaint.

How the ombudsman can help

If the company fails to respond to this final letter within a reasonable period of time (say, 14 days), you can take your complaint to the ombudsman.

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.

What the ombudsman covers

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. 

How to contact the ombudsman

Different ombudsmen have different procedures – some may ask you to fill out a complaint form, while for others you need only write a letter outlining your problem. 

If it’s the latter make sure you include the following information:

  • your name and address (or the name and address of the person making the complaint)
  • the name and address of the organisation the complaint is being made about
  • details of what your complaint is about, including exactly what the company did that it shouldn’t have (or what it didn’t do that it should have done)
  • what you have lost in terms of personal injustice, financial loss, hardship or inconvenience
  • what you would like the organisation to do to put things right 
  • details of what you have done so far to try to resolve the complaint
  • copies of any relevant letters, emails, invoices or receipts

Use the right scheme

The main public or government ombudsman schemes are:

The main private schemes are:

What to expect from the ruling

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
  • 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 it works, which will improve things for other people.

In the public sector, organisations must cooperate with an ombudsman's investigation 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.

Taking your case to court

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 a judicial review, which is a serious and complicated process, and you would need expert legal help to do this.