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How Firms Should Handle Complaints During Coronavirus

The FCA has laid out its expectations for how firms should handle complaints during the coronavirus pandemic.

The ongoing crisis has presented many challenges, including how firms are able to deal with complaints. The FCA’s statement, which will be reviewed and updated in three months time, clarifies its position on complaints handling in the current circumstances.

What are firms expected to prioritise?

  1. paying promptly complainants who have been offered redress and accepted that offer
  2. the prompt and fair resolution of complaints from:
  • consumers who are likely to be vulnerable to harm if their complaint is not resolved promptly and fairly, and
  • micro-enterprises and small businesses who are likely to face serious financial difficulties if their complaint is not resolved promptly and fairly
  1. sending timely holding responses to those complainants in 2. where their complaints cannot be resolved promptly.

Where firms cannot deliver these three priorities adequately and effectively through home working, then the FCA would consider that it could be appropriate for the firm to maintain the minimal physical onsite presence needed to do so. However, the site in question would have to be prepared to put in place social distancing precautions in line with UK government guidelines.

Considering vulnerable customers

An important consideration during the coronavirus pandemic is the issue of vulnerable customers. The FCA’s definition of a vulnerable customer is “someone whose circumstances make them especially vulnerable to harm if a firm has not acted with appropriate levels of care, such as resolving their complaint promptly and fairly.”

There are a variety of circumstances that can cause a consumer to become vulnerable, which include:

  • poor health
  • low financial or emotional resilience
  • life events such as bereavement or divorce
  • low capability, including poor digital, language and cognitive skills etc.

The coronavirus pandemic and the associated government distancing measures are likely to exacerbate the circumstances that can cause vulnerability. It may cause a consumer to become vulnerable quite suddenly, due to, for example, loss of income, the physical and mental impacts of isolation, the need to care for others and the unexpected death of loved ones.

Firms should also bear in mind that, while the FCA’s definition of vulnerable consumers refers to individuals, it can also apply to micro-enterprises and small businesses who could also face circumstances that can make them especially susceptible to harm if a firm’s failure to act with appropriate levels of care means their complaint is not resolved promptly and fairly.

Maintaining the quality of complaint handling

The FCA does not expect any reduction in the quality of firms’ complaint handling. A firm should ensure that it continues to meet its obligations, which include investigating complaints competently, diligently and impartially, and paying appropriate redress or making other appropriate remediation.

The current situation should not affect firms’ abilities to:

  • tell consumers about their complaint procedures and those of the Financial Ombudsman Service, noting that the Ombudsman Service’s standard explanatory leaflet can be provided electronically
  • enable consumers to submit complaints – although firms may need to restrict more resource-intensive complaints channels, such as telephone lines, to consumers who cannot use other channels, such as customers with whom firms do not interact online 
  • acknowledge receipt of complaints, particularly where the firm has the technology to send automated responses by email or online to complaints made electronically

Where firms are experiencing difficulties…

The FCA recognises that operational challenges may mean that some firms may find it more difficult to meet certain requirements in DISP 1.6 – particularly the requirement to provide a final response to complaints within 8 weeks of receipt (15 business days for payment services or e-money complaints), or a holding response explaining why they’ve been unable to provide a final response within the timeframe.

Where firms have material difficulties complying with DISP 1.6, or other complaints handling requirements, they should inform their usual supervisory contact or contact: firm.queries@fca.org.uk. They should then tell the regulator the steps being taken to manage and address this non-compliance.

The Financial Ombudsman Service’s general approach

The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) determines complaints by reference to what is, in its opinion, fair and reasonable in all the circumstances of the case. The challenges faced by firms during this period, as well as what counted as good industry practice at the time, will form part of that assessment.

The FCA states that many of its rules, such as those on promptly investigating complaints, already give firms significant flexibility. Where it issues guidance that gives firms additional flexibility to help them deal with difficult operating conditions, the Ombudsman Service will take this guidance into account.

 

Don’t forget that RWA is able to help. If you need any support, please get in touch with your RWA business manager or contact us via the helpdesk on 01604 709509 or helpdesk@rwagroup.co.uk.

For further information and guidance on the FCA’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, go here: https://www.fca.org.uk/coronavirus

About the author

Ash Patel

Ash is Managing Director at RWA. He has over 15 years’ experience in the legal and compliance field and ten years in broker sales and leadership roles in national and global insurance firms.

He is highly skilled in the application of risk-based regulation, working closely with businesses at executive and board level to develop commercially viable, compliant systems and controls. Ash is adept in providing solutions-based interpretations of the FCA’s technical standards and facilitating the transfer of compliance skills and education needed for businesses to self-manage their own compliance and training needs.

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