Gregory Hunt is one of Europe's most experienced advocates of ODR, and a director at one of the leading ODR services in the United Kingdom: the non-profit Ombudsman Services organization. With 21 years of experience in alternative dispute resolution, whom better to ask about the current situation when it comes to consumer disputes?
1. You have been helping Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) come to life for nearly 20 years now. What have you learned on that journey?
I’m in my 21st year, currently. I have learned that it is very difficult to persuade businesses that they need ADR, but when you do, they are very grateful for it! ADR remains a distress purchase. It is unusual for a business to seek it out – more often they only hear of it when they need it or are told they have to have it.
2. What appealed to you when it comes to mediation in the first place? That’s not a common career choice, is it?
I sort of fell in to it. After university I was working for the UK Civil Service up in the north and my wife is from the South East of England. We met at University and she eventually persuaded me to move to the South East, and the best place to find work was London. I got a new job at The Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in October 1995. I didn’t know what arbitration was, the attraction was that it paid more than the civil service. That was it, I was hooked!
3. What in your opinion is the real value of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) and ADR for retailers and consumers?
For the trader it is an ideal way to resolve a complaint before it turns in to a full blown dispute and ends up in court. It is private, can be dealt with quickly, it is binding and, vitally for all traders, it is cost-effective. For the consumer it is free (or though in some cases, not with Ombudsman Services, as there is a charge), it should be simple enough to complete without having to pay for legal assistance and you can do it in your own time (subject to scheme deadlines of course).
It reduces complaints
Bad publicity or negative social media comments surrounding complaints going to court could encourage others to complain too – but ADR offers a quicker, less costly and more private resolution, helping you reduce complaints as well as deal with them effectively.
It improves consumer confidence
Showing you're a member of an ADR scheme helps your customers feel more confident in dealing with you, knowing that you're willing to use ADR to resolve any issues. 44% of consumers feel more confident in companies that offer access to an ombudsman services to resolve a complaint (CAM 2015).
Benefits of ADR
- • Free to use
- • Premium placed on being accessible and approachable
- • Doesn’t require legal represntation or specilaist knowledge
- • Help available on how to make a complaint
- • Ombudsman makes decisions based on what is fair and reasonable rather than more narrow remit of the law.
- • Particular concern for access for vulnerable consumers.
4. Can you shed some more light on how the EU law is being adapted in the UK?
It is incredibly variable. Some sectors and some businesses have welcomed it, others haven’t. It is early days but the initial response is a little disappointing. As my 21 years testify though, it is a long slog and we are much further than we were a decade or two ago.
5. Can you summarize the activity of your organization, Ombudsman Services?
Ombudsman Services was founded in 2002 to provide independent dispute resolution. We provide an independent, impartial and cost effective means of resolving disputes outside the courts. The Ombudsmen Services Ltd is a not-for-profit organisation - we are funded by those whose complaints we handle through a combination of subscription and case fees which means there is no cost to the public purse.
Ombudsman Services is one of Europe’s largest providers of dispute resolution services. That means we resolve complaints and disputes between consumers and companies and work with both sides to come to an amicable agreement where a problem has arisen. Our role is to resolve the complaint appropriately. Our decisions are binding on the company and are enforceable in court. We can require: an apology; an explanation of what went wrong; a practical action to correct the problem; or a financial award. We also deal with commercial disputes and have a panel of commercial mediators.
6. What industries does Ombudsman Services focus on and why?
Energy and communications are our core sectors. We started off a an ombudsman for telecoms and then added energy and now we operate across multiple sectors – we deal with complaints about private parking on public land, music royalties, veterinary complaints, property and general consumer issues through our “catch-all” Consumer Ombudsman service.
7. How many complaints do you receive annually, and how do you cope with them?
According to our data from April 2014 to March 2015, Ombudsman Services resolved 62,806 complaints. How do we cope!? We have 600 skilled staff – enquiry officers, investigation officers, ombudsmen and back office – we take great pride in training and staff development and, may I say with a little bias, our people are generally amazing at what they do.
8. What is the most curious complaint you’ve yet received?
A case study you may wish to use below:
A spooky cocktail of spirits, vortexes and exorcisms
After months of being unsettled in their home Mrs Crook and her family decided to take action against an otherworldly force that was causing upset to her and her family.
The Crook’s family home was being haunted by an unwanted, negative spirit that was causing her and her family much distress. To help cleanse their home of this defiant ghost they employed the services of an experienced ‘spirit release’ professional.
Mrs Crook was relieved that after such a tormenting and unnerving time that her house would once again be a home. However, this was not to be the case. After the spirit release had performed the exorcism ceremony, the Crooks were unfortunately left worse off than before. The fact was, instead of cleansing the home of the spirit, the service provider had opened up a vortex within the house that allowed for more ghosts and spirits to roam freely. This meant that the Crook family was not only let down by the spirit cleansing company not fulfilling the services that they had been paid to do, but the family was also left frightened and found it incredibly difficult to continue living in their home.
Dissatisfied with the service she received, Mrs Crook pursued a full refund from the company. The request was declined as the company stated they had successfully completed the exorcism.
As a result the Crooks made an official complaint through an alternative ombudsman service. Finding it a lengthy process Mrs Crook contacted Ombudsman Services to see if we could process her complaint quicker under our property sector service offering. Ombudsman Jon Lenton said “We’re always happy to help complainants resolve their problems but this was just one complaint that even we didn’t have the powers to sort out”.
We advised Mrs Crook that we would be unable to help on this occasion but wished her luck in her claim in getting her refund. We were also happy to hear that since then Mrs Crook has recruited the skills of an alternative company to banish the ghosts causing so much unrest for her family, to her delight this time the exorcism was successful and the company was also able close the vortex to the other side.
9. What is your advice for retailers on Christmas returns?
With the new Consumer Rights Act, consumers are better protected than ever before, but awareness of the new law is low – a third of people haven’t even heard of it. The new rules on refunds and online purchases help to remove blurred lines, which in the past prevented customers from receiving fair service.
If you are let down by a retailer, you have the right to complain. If you’ve spoken with the retailer and your complaint remains unresolved after a reasonable amount of time you can take your problem to the consumer ombudsman – a free and easy alternative to a small claims court. It takes just 10 minutes to complete an online form at www.consumer-ombudsman.org.
Advice for consumers: If you’ve experienced a problem with a retailer:
- • Make sure you complain – the company can’t fix the problem if it doesn’t know about it
- • Speak to the retailer about your issue – they may be able to fix the problem quickly and easily
- • It can be frustrating but keep your anger in check – being assertive rather than aggressive is more likely to get you the solution you want
- • Don’t worry about making a fuss and don’t be embarrassed – it’s your right to complain
- • Admit your part in the problem, if you had any fault
- • If you’ve spoken to the retailer and the complaint remains unresolved after eight weeks, you can approach the Consumer Ombudsman, who will look into your dispute If the company is at fault, the ombudsman will aim to return you to the position you would have been in had the issue not occurred
- • According to research from Citizens Advice and the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), 34% of people haven’t heard of the new Consumer Rights Act (Which?, 2015).
10. How do you see ODR in 5 years from now?
I’d like to think that thanks to Youstice and Ombudsman Services it will be just normal! Can it get better than that? I don’t think so. If people know it is there, use it, trust it and if it becomes the norm, then it is a success.
11. What do you think of Youstice? How does it change the ODR landscape?
I admire what Youstice has achieved and you have really helped to raise the profile not only of ODR, but of ADR as well. Maybe in five or ten years people won’t say ODR, maybe they’ll just say “I went to Youstice” in the same way people say “I had a coke” or “I used a hoover”.