Financial Services Ombudsman: a preference for “talk” over rights?

Late last year the Financial Services Ombudsman made some remarkable comments about High Court judgments affecting his office. He acknowledges that powerful agencies should be accountable to the courts, but believes that judicial decisions have been inconsistent and/or incoherent. The tone of the comments is alarming, given that the Ombudsman deals with complaints made by consumers.

FSO

The Ombudsman provides a form of binding arbitration which does not impose costs (either up front or as a consequence of losing) and so it is obviously attractive to consumers. However, the sting in the tail is that a decision of the Ombudsman can only be appealed to the High Court, which would otherwise only deal with cases worth more than €75,000.

An appeal from a decision of the Ombudsman must be lodged within 21 days. The Ombudsman’s website helpfully informs visitors that parties wishing to appeal should contact the Central Office of the High Court. Appeals are not simple: they will probably involve complicated issues of fact and law. The complainant may not have had legal or professional advice during the course of the complaint but would reasonably seek at this stage.

The Ombudsman is affronted by the outcome of some of these appeals.

He said findings that he should hold an oral hearing if there was a “conflict of material fact” in a case were “not compatible” with the operation of his office. “If we have to hold an oral hearing in every such case, I hope our political establishment has the intellectual honesty to abolish the office because otherwise it is simply a charade,” he said.

This is a surprising argument: it is not “compatible” with the operation of his office to hold oral hearings, so therefore decisions saying that oral hearings might be necessary are incoherent or, at least, somehow incorrect. When dealing with these appeals the High Court is considering issues of fair procedures and the correct application of the law, not the convenience of a State body. Whether or not the holding of oral hearings is compatible with the Ombudsman’s office is a question for the executive, not the courts.

Mr Prasifka said if the logic of one judgment was followed, “potentially every one of the thousands of decisions made since we have set up is constitutionally challengeable”.

One might think that such a decision suggests that the practice or the law needs changed. Instead, the Ombudsman takes the view that these decisions are “incompatible” with his office and therefore wrong. By contrast, he believes that financial institutions should “learn” from their experience of complaints decided on by his office. He does not appear to consider the possibility of financial institutions taking the view that decisions by his office are “incompatible” with their own business (as, in fact, seems to be the attitude of certain financial institutions).

The Ombudsman, however, appears to betray his true feelings by suggesting that perhaps the Ombudsman system just won’t work in Ireland because “rights are much too important”. This is an extraordinarily dismissive attitude to the rights and interests of complainants. One must wonder what is more important than rights? Perhaps bureaucratic efficiency or satisfying some particular group over the interests of individual rights holders. Bear in mind: the statement was made by the  “most powerful office of the ombudsman in the world”.

William Prasifka

The Ombudsman was subsequently interviewed on RTÉ’s This Week radio show. First, however, Padraic Kissane was interviewed and discussed his extensive experience of Ombudsman complaints. He said that he had dealt with a number of identical complaints to the Ombudsman that resulted in inconsistent decisions.

[The banks] take the view that they really have nothing to lose by getting a case referred to the Ombudsman because  … the win percentages of the Ombudsman for complainants is so low in Ireland, compared to the UK for example, and I have seen and have in my files inconsistent decisions from the Ombudsman’s office relating to the identical terms and conditions of an application and they were both within three months of each other. So it’s the inconsistency of the whole issue.

Mr Kissane refers to the “win percentage” for complainants. The win percentage for financial institutions has gone from 63% in 2009 to was 73% in 2012.

A significant issue for the operation of an office like the Ombudsman is that while it purports to be in the interests of consumers by providing a cost-effective means to pursue a complaint, the reality is that it is pitting those consumers against seasoned professionals. Not only that: consumer complaints are being arbitrated by an office that does not want to be constrained by having to respect the rights of the people who generate the complaints.

This is, in many respects, the contemporary blueprint for justice. The Personal Injuries Assessment Board is another low-cost, modern alternative to courts but one which again encourages individuals to enter a forum, alone, in which they are faced with heavyweight professionals. There are calls for the establishment of a similar body to deal with medical negligence claims. It is popular, if not populist, to essentially seek the removal of lawyers from the equation, but does that protect the interests and rights of citizens? In addition: each time a new dispute resolution forum is established the supposed failings of the courts system remain unaddressed.

One of the consumer’s rights is the right, already referred to, to appeal a finding of the Ombudsman to the High Court. Whether to do so is a serious question. Such an appeal would not be expensive and risky. Many would seek legal advice and services and might not have had those services when first dealing with the complaint. So the complainant and their lawyers have only 21 days in which to weigh up the situation and make a decision.

Given the Ombudsman’s statements about High Court decisions it might not be surprising that he does not appear to be in favour of people taking such appeals.

If anyone thinks that we’re inconsistent they should come and talk to us and in certain cases where people have come to talk to us about this we found that on a closer examination there are actually important differences between the cases and that explained by and large the different result. But look, we always seek to improve our decision making and anyone who has a concern about that is really free to come and talk to us.

I don’t know how available the Ombudsman’s staff are to people who want to “come and talk” but it would seem to be an unhelpful approach to suggest that people who have 21 days in which to decide whether to appeal a decision should first consult the other side in this manner.

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