We have got together with Ombudsman Services: Property to answer some of the most commonly asked questions of the redress schemes and to provide some pointers and useful information that may help to reduce complaints in the first place.
Q. I have the same leaseholder complaining to me on a regular basis about small insignificant issues. It’s very time consuming to deal with them and it feels like they’re complaining for the sake of it or just to make work. How should I handle this?
A. Minor issues on a development are often intensified because it affects an individual’s home and they become more difficult to deal with. All leaseholders have a right to make a complaint and many of the complaints escalated to the ombudsman arise from poor communication about relatively minor issues.
You should remind leaseholders of your duties and what your role entails. You should issue your complaints handling procedure (CHP) and follow it. Demonstrating commitment to effective complaints handling helps your business and if you cannot resolve the issues refer the complaint to the ombudsman. The leaseholder can then contact our office and we will decide if we can accept the complaint.
We have the ability to reject a complaint where it is frivolous or vexatious but this is relatively rare and a persistent leaseholder making a complaint is not necessarily frivolous or vexatious. The key is quick, effective and clear complaints handling.
Q. Why do we have to pay a case fee when your investigation shows we did nothing wrong?
A. An ombudsman scheme is a free to use service to resolve disputes from domestic consumers relating to companies under its jurisdiction. This means that redress is accessible to individuals who could not afford to pursue their complaints through the courts. This means the charge for handling the complaint can only be passed on to the participating company, regardless of the outcome.
Interestingly, research completed by Ombudsman Services confirms that clients and potential clients view organisations offering redress far more favourably than those that do not. Allowing customers’ access to redress when matters do go wrong should be viewed as a positive step.
Q. A number of leaseholders on the development are going to bring the same complaint individually to the ombudsman. That means we’re going to get invoiced multiple case fees for what is the same complaint. Can OS:P look at them all as one complaint?
A. The starting point is whether it is a complaint and if it is then each complainant has the right to have the complaint considered. But, in certain circumstances, where the issues are identical, we can consider group complaints. To do this, all the leaseholders with the same complaint would have to agree to be part of a group complaint, which may reduce the overall fee. The group would nominate one primary contact. The leaseholders would have to agree to have one unified voice. Any remedy we recommend would apply to the group only and would not affect anyone outside of the group.
If you feel this is an option please make it known to us and we can consider whether accepting a group complaint is an option.
Q. Complainants refer to you before we’ve got to the end of our CHP, how can I stop them doing this?
A. We always prefer that a complainant has followed, or made a reasonable effort to follow, the CHP. If they have not done so and are simply trying to bypass the process, our enquiries team will appropriately signpost the complainant back to the firm. But please remember when writing your CHP that after eight weeks a complaint can be brought to us. It is important that the number of steps is kept to a minimum and the timescales reflect the eight week period.
Q. Our management agreement says our client will indemnify against additional costs we may incur during our management of the development. We want to rebill previously incurred case fees to the service charge, am I able to do this?
A. Our service must remain free for consumers. As such our fee cannot be rebilled to the service charge. To do so may be open to challenge at a tribunal. If your client has agreed to indemnify your costs then that would be a matter to take up with your client and any payment of costs should be from your client only.
Q. We only receive a small fee for managing the development. The goodwill payments the ombudsman awards outweigh what we earn. Why isn’t the goodwill payment proportionate to the management fee?
A. A goodwill payment will take into account the shortfall in service that has occurred together with the time and trouble the complainant has suffered. A goodwill payment is often awarded because the complaint has not been handled well; this is separate to the management of the development which may well have been reasonable.
Q. What constitutes a good case file?
A. All case files should aim to convince us that the company’s point of view is reasonable and that it has followed its processes, procedures and any relevant industry standards. You should provide your opinion on the complaint along with any documents which support your point of view or demonstrate what has happened. We offer a guidance note about how to prepare a case file, if you would like a copy please contact our Relationship Manager.
Q. How can I avoid complaints coming to your office?
A. Complaints are a consequence of the work you do. You should never prevent someone from raising their complaint or referring them to our office. However, good communication is vital, along with timeliness and transparency. You should aim to respond to queries in an open, transparent and timely manner.
Q. We are currently reviewing our Complaint Handling Procedure, how many stages do you recommend?
A. A company has eight weeks in which to resolve a complaint before it can come to Ombudsman Services: Property, you do not want a complicated or time consuming CHP which would mean the end could not be reached before this period expires. A good CHP should contain two stages to allow review within the company before a final stage, which is referral to a redress scheme.
Q. Our client instructed us to take debt recovery action against a non-paying leaseholder, which meant they incurred debt recovery fees. The leaseholder complained about the additional charges. We believe the ombudsman should not accept cases about debt recovery charges until after the matter has been to Court. What justification does the ombudsman have for accepting these cases and making decisions on what is a debt recovery matter and would be better off dealt with by Court?
A. The ombudsman would never make an award which goes against the lease and we would certainly not recommend a leaseholder contravenes their covenants. If a leaseholder complained about debt recovery fees, we would look at the reasons why they have been incurred and the process that had been followed. If the debt recovery process was flawed then we may make an award to reflect that shortfall. As an alternative dispute resolution scheme, Ombudsman Services: Property is an alternative to the Courts. Although a complaint may centre on non-payment and the associated fees that would not preclude our service from investigating the leaseholder’s concerns as they ultimately have the right to free redress.
For more information please telephone 0330 440 1634. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit our website www.ombudsman-services.org