How to complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service

The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) handles more than 3,500 complaints every single working day. So how can you complain if your bank or building society has fallen short?

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The Financial Services Authority has ordered NatWest and its parent company Royal Bank of Scotland £2.8million for failing to respond adequately to many customer complaints.

It found several issues, including that a number of customers were not told of their right to refer their issues to the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS), which is a one-stop shop for people who cannot resolve an issue with a financial services provider. In the ten years since it was created, the ombudsmen has gone from settling 25,000 disputes each year to 200,000 in 2010.

The service is an important one – in the 12 months to May last year, it settled a record 166,321 disputes, half of which resulted in compensation for consumers. Back then, we interviewed chief financial ombudsman Natalie Ceeney, which you can watch in our video ‘How to make a financial complaint’.

But if you’re unhappy with a company, such as your bank, how do you go about complaining to the FOS?

What areas does the FOS cover?

An ombudsman is an intermediary service, and the FOS can help with the majority of complaints about financial products and services provided within or from the UK.

It covers banking, insurance, pensions, savings and investments, credit and store cards, loans and credit, hire purchase, financial advice, stocks, shares, unit trusts and bonds.

What powers does it have?

If the FOS decides the business has acted wrongly and caused you to lose out, it aims to put you in the position you’d be in had things not gone wrong.

The FOS can tell that provider to compensate you for up to £100,000 – although obviously most complaints are for much smaller sums.

Start with your provider

You can’t go straight to the FOS, you have to give your bank, insurer or other financial services provider a fair chance at sorting it out. First of all, ask it to resolve the issue.

If that doesn’t work then raise a complaint through the company’s official complaints process, usually through its customer relations department. Keep copies of any letters you send and consider posting them recorded delivery.

Outline the problem clearly and politely, and explain how you would like it to be resolved. The bank or insurer then has eight weeks from the day it receives your written complaint to resolve your complaint.

Waiting this out may be frustrating, however, if you want to escalate it to the FOS, you need to give the company a chance to respond first.

Bear in mind that, if you don’t know how to complain to the business, you can ask the FOS for help complaining – contact details here.

How do I make a formal complaint?

To raise a case with the FOS, you should download and complete the relevant form on its website. However, if you need some help filling it in, you can call the helpline on 0300 1239 123.

You need to print out and sent the form back by post, as the FOS needs your handwritten signature to show you’ve understood the declaration at the end of the form.

Most people will also need to send other documents, such as proof of postage for letters to their provider, or forms referring to the complaint.

If your complaint is about the sale of payment protection insurance, there’s an additional form to complete.

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What happens next?

If you’re still hoping for a speedy resolution, you may need to rein in your expectations. The FOS will then approach the company you’ve complained about and ask for its response, before making a decision.

One third of the complaints raised are settled within three months and most are resolved within six to nine months. If your complaint requires more formal investigations then it is likely to take longer.

Do I need legal help?

You do not need legal assistance or support in order to complain to the ombudsman. If it accepts you have a case, it can compel the bank or insurer to resolve it with you. As it is a free service, this is much cheaper than challenging your bank or provider through the courts.

What if I am not happy with the outcome?

If you don’t agree with what the FOS adjudicator says then you can ask for your case to be reviewed and this is carried out by one of the organisation’s ombudsmen. However, their decision is final as far as the FOS is concerned, no other ombudsman can overturn that outcome.

Anyone who is still dissatisfied after this can take their dispute to court, but the FOS will not offer any legal advice.

Top tips for successful complaints

When you’re complaining, whether to a provider or the ombudsmen, it’s easy to become frustrated and distressed. However, getting angry can simply slow down the process, or make it less likely your complaint will be taken seriously.

Here are some other top tips for successful complaining:

Speak to the original person: If you can talk to the person you originally dealt with, then resolving your issue may be easier. In the event they cannot help, find out the name of the person who will be dealing with your query.

Put it in writing: Although you can make a complaint on the phone, if you put it in writing then you have a record of your complaint. If you aren’t confident writing formal letters, ask a friend for some help or speak to an organisation like Citizens Advice. Put the word ‘complaint’ at the top of your letter so that it is clear.

Keep it simple: Outline your problem and the resolution you want as clearly and succinctly as possible. While it may be tempting to rant about how the problem has affected you, it will be easier for the company to resolve your issue if it is clear.

Keep records: If you’re sending documentation that backs up your complaint, only post copies. Keep a record of all the letters you send.

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