The Ombudsman Omnishambles continues… Even on Conflict Resolution Day…

Today (20th October)  is Conflict Resolution Day. Created in 2005 by the Association for Conflict Resolution1. It is now an annual celebration aimed at increasing awareness of the various peaceful, non-violent methods of dispute resolution (ADR) available to traders and consumers.

Lots of people text Ombudsman omnishambles
How are authorities failing in their approval of ombudsmen and ADR providers? Many ways


Helen Dewdney, The Complaining Cow blogger and author of How to Complain: The Essential Guide to Getting Refunds, Redress and Results! recommends ADR to consumers as a cost effective (usually free to consumer) and speedier process than going to court. She expresses concern over the current landscape though saying that many people don’t know about ADR. “Frequently I hear from people who are at the end of their tether with traders and although may be aware of an ombudsman for regulated sectors such as Finance, Energy and Telecoms they are less aware of other sectors such as property, vehicles and furniture.”

For example, The Furniture Ombudsman now incorporating The Dispute Resolution Ombudsman was set up by the Office of Fair Trading and has 25 years of experience in the retail sector dealing with complaints around furniture, home improvement and general retail goods. The independent, thorough investigation process frequently involving expert reports ensures a fair resolution for both parties, that consumers can trust. Kevin Grix, CEO of The Furniture Ombudsman and The Dispute Resolution Ombudsman advises consumers to become more aware of ombudsman schemes and protect themselves more from the outset. “Before you shop, make sure your trader of choice offers ADR and if you find yourself in a dispute, you can ensure you contact the right ADR scheme for the trader you have a contract with.“

Ombudsmen use adjudication, which is usually free to the consumer, binding on the trader but not on the consumer should s/he not agree and want to take the matter to court. However, lesser known but an alternative to Ombudsmen is mediation which puts the parties within a dispute in control of the outcome, taking into account wishes and needs not just legal entitlement. Jo Holland, a mediator consultant with 10 years’ experience finds that people often want to be heard, say their piece or just hear an apology and says “Consumers and businesses need choice and access to affordable and speedy dispute resolution. Mediation provides imaginative, practical and financial outcomes without the need to go to Court”

However, an investigative report Ombudsman Omnishambles: Serious unresolved issues affecting the operation of the ombudsman ADR system in the UK2 written by Dewdney and Marcus Williamson identified a number of issues regarding the certification and ongoing monitoring of ADR providers. The organisations responsible for appointing and overseeing the ombudsmen appear to be taking a “light touch” approach to the new privatised ombudsman sector.

Among the findings of the report:

* The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) does not carry out basic “fit and proper” person tests before approving ombudsmen, their staff and contractors.

* One ombudsman is breaching Ombudsman Association rules on independence, openness & transparency. In particular, the company is running an “accredited retailer” programme in parallel with having the ombudsman role confusing consumers.

The use of ADR has the potential to offer consumers effective means of redress and the expansion into other sectors is welcomed but key issues must be resolved before bringing the whole sector into disrepute and lose confidence of consumers.

Alternative Dispute Resolution: What it all means

Alternative Dispute Resolution

From the 9th July 2015 The EU ADR Directive was supposed to come into force. It was delayed until the 1st October. This compels the government to ensure that ADR schemes are in place.

ADR is a process that enables disputes between a consumer and a business to be settled via an independent mechanism outside the court system and can provide a quicker resolution. There are different forms of ADR:

Arbitration – an impartial and independent third party will decide how to resolve your dispute. In most cases, the arbitrator’s decision is binding and cannot be challenged in court. Costs vary and sometimes arbitration is free as with IDRS and ACAS services.

Adjudication – by ombudsmen and free to the consumer. Binding on the trader but not on you should you not agree and want to take the matter to court. For details of ombudsmen see the relevant sector chapter.

Mediation/conciliation – remains confidential and cannot be used in a later court hearing. The cost varies: in some instances it’s free; in others, it can get expensive. By the very nature of the word “mediation” someone will work with you and the other party to reach a decision. If agreement is made and signed this is legally binding. You would only be to go to court to enforce it if necessary.

Negotiation – which is used most commonly in employment situations. You can choose to have a union rep or someone else present while you negotiate.

Generally, arbitration is binding on both parties to the dispute; mediation/conciliation and negotiation are non-binding; and adjudication and ombudsmen schemes do not bind the complainant, but will be binding on the other side.

There’s a guest post from the Financial Ombudsman.

Furniture and dispute resolution guest post.

The ADR appears to have let the flood gates open and the potential for an omnishambles of ombudsmen is upon us.

Film recorded for Citizen’s Advice:

Ombudsmen Omnishambles

Update to this story Ombudsman Omnishambles: New report exposes serious failings in ombudsman approval and oversight

New privatised system of Alternative Dispute Resolution threatens consumer complaints chaos – but even its own implementation has now been delayed…

A new EU-mandated system of private ombudsmen which was due to come into force today, 9 July 2015, will not now be implemented until 1 October 2015. Private companies will then be handling consumer complaints in sectors including retail, aviation, furniture and property.

Under the new system companies would be obliged to point customers to private complaints-handling companies but would not be bound by their decisions.

Apart from the delay in implementation, there are many problems with the system as it is proposed.

For example:

  • There are two ombudsmen for the retail sector: One run by the company The Retail Ombudsman, the other by Ombudsman Services. There are also three ombudsmen for the property sector. This will lead to considerable confusion for the public. [1]
  • There are no criminal records checks for ombudsmen employees or directors: The company calling itself The Retail Ombudsman employs a convicted criminal as its communications director. [2]
  • One private company already running another ombudsman service pre-launched an Aviation Ombudsman without obtaining CAA permission. [3]
  • The CAA had previously confirmed that it would be winding down its own complaints scheme in favour of a privatised operation from 1 September 2015 (depending on certain conditions). [4]
  • There is no “ombudsman of ombudsmen” – The body responsible setting up Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) schemes, the Trading Standards Institute (TSI), has no consumer complaints system.
  • The chairman of the trade body The Ombudsman Association, Lewis Shand Smith, is also the CEO of one of the ombudsman companies. [5]
  • When the law eventually comes into force from 1 October 2015, traders will be obliged to tell consumers where to go for ADR but are not obliged to use ADR services.
  • Update 12/10/15 Ombudsman services have set up a Consumer Ombudsman for “everything else” increasing the likelihood of more doubling up.

Asked about the retail ombudsman via Twitter in May this year, Sainsbury’s social media staff replied candidly.


Further details of these issues are available on request.

Marcus Williamson, Editor of the consumer information website, says “These new companies are in this for the money and will be charging the companies whose customers are complaining. Those costs will inevitably be passed onto consumers through higher prices of products and services.”

More about

Helen Dewdney, Consumer Champion and author of the book “How To Complain: The ESSENTIAL Consumer Guide to Getting REFUNDS, Redress and RESULTS!”, says:  “This ongoing Ombudsman omnishambles is helping no-one and will only result in confusion for consumers. If an ADR regime is to work well for consumers it needs a single ombudsman per sector, a clear code of practice and independent oversight.”

More about Helen Dewdney: //

[1] For example: and
Neville Thurlbeck, former News of the World chief reporter, was jailed for 6 months in July 2014 for phone hacking. The Trading Standards Institute has confirmed that criminal record checks are not necessary for ombudsman directors or staff.
[3] Screenshot available on request

Radio 4 appearance discussing ombudsmen: