Top ombudsmen respond to growing consumer empowerment and expectations

06 May 2014

The UK’s top ombudsmen met at Wolfson College last week at a conference organized by the FLJS and Centre for Socio-Legal Studies to explore how to maintain trust in ombudsmen in a rapidly changing environment.
Participants at the conference, entitled Trusting the ‘middle man’: Impact and Legitimacy of Ombudsmen, sought to reach a consensus on the best way forward for ombudsmen schemes in response to the growth of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) bodies and the EU’s ADR Directive devised to help consumers in disputes with traders across Europe.
After an introduction and welcome by the conference convener Naomi Creutzfeldt, ESRC Research Fellow at the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, Richard Thomas CBE chaired and opened the conference by referring to the crucial role played by ombudsmen in the implementation of the new EU measures, which will affect consumers across a wide range of sectors. He stated that the conference would provide an essential opportunity to discuss how to respond to the current challenges to keep public trust and to maintain a strong relationship between ombudsmen and the civil justice system.
Adam Sampson, Chief Legal Ombudsman, identified some of the pitfalls of the current situation, speaking of the competing pressures to resolve disputes speedily while managing costs. He warned of the need to keep in mind serving not only the complainant, but also the demands of justice, which may not be best served by speedy resolution processes and financial settlements between consumer and those who are the cause of the complaint.
The issue of consumer satisfaction and the increasing influence of the consumer voice enabled by social media was taken up by Caroline Wayman, Legal Director & Principal Ombudsman at the Financial Ombudsman Service. She identified future challenges posed by this growing consumer empowerment  and expectations, and claimed that significant benefits for policymaking can be achieved if consumers are recognized as individuals looking to be treated with dignity, respect, and compassion, not just traditional notions of ‘redress’.
Issues such as how best to foster trust and best practice for benchmarking and evaluating the success of ombudsmen schemes were discussed, before proceedings were brought to a close by Chief Ombudsman Lewis Shand Smith, who addressed the current and future policy agendas influencing the ombudsman and ADR landscape.
The conference was organized by Naomi Creutzfeldt from the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies and Chris Gill from Queen Margaret University. It was held as part of the FLJS/CSLS programme on European Civil Justice Systems, which aims to evaluate all options for dispute resolution in a European state, and to propose new frameworks and solutions.
Recordings from the conference will be available from our podcasts page in the coming weeks, and a report and policy briefs will be published on our Publications pages later this year.