Consultancy Proposes Changes to Handling of UK Telecoms Complaints

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Consultancy firm Mott MacDonald, which were hired by Ofcom to review the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) process, has made a series of recommendations in order to better ensure that consumer complaints handlers for broadband, phone and mobile issues improve the process of accepting and adjudicating cases.

At present the regulator requires that UK ISPs must become members of an approved ADR scheme (there are two of these – CISAS or Ombudsman Services [OS]). The schemes are free for consumers to access and designed to supplement (not replace) an ISPs own internal complaints procedure(s), although ISPs often have to pay sizeable costs regardless of whether they win or lose a case.

The ADR process is usually seen as a last line of defence for consumers and such schemes are generally only used after a dispute has gone unresolved for 6-8 weeks (i.e. the “Deadlock Letter” stage). See our ISP Complaints and Advice section for more information.

However over the years various ISPs have privately grumbled to us about how ADR providers will sometimes accept so-called “vexatious” consumer complaints, which they believed were out of scope for ADR. Likewise we’ve also seen gripes about how some complaints were brought by businesses, which should not have been using ADR (i.e. those with more than 10 employees).

Some providers have similarly “expressed a belief that the financial models of the Schemes incentivised them to accept cases that were out of scope.” In response Ofcom asked Mott MacDonald to review a sample of cases that CPs challenged as being out of scope.

NOTE: In 2017, OS accepted 34,981 cases from consumers, of which 3,739 were disputed by ISPs. CISAS accepted 4,051 cases in 2017, of which 158 were disputed. Disputed cases therefore represented under 10% of the total number of cases accepted by the Schemes.

The consultancy firm thus reviewed a sample of 340 cases accepted by OS and CISAS in 2017, but which were subsequently disputed by CPs. Overall they found that there was a “high level of decision making accuracy across both Schemes with regard to case acceptance or rejection” and “no evidence was found to suggest that acceptance of cases was financially motivated, or that the Schemes were accepting vexatious cases.”

Nevertheless Mott MacDonald has made several recommendations as a result of their review, which they say could improve the process of accepting and adjudicating ADR cases.

Recommendations by the Consultancy

1) Refine/review the classification of disputes

Mott MacDonald found there were two key categories of disputes: those which were materially outside the terms of reference of the Schemes, and those which related to invalid and incomplete account information. Mott MacDonald considered it pragmatic to re-classify cases where a dispute is raised based on invalid account information; instead of being considered a “dispute” they should be flagged as a “query” or “clarification” request.

2) Refine processes around the validation of cases

In Mott MacDonald’s opinion there should be a more flexible approach to information validation, especially in complaints involving vulnerable consumers. Mott also noted that consumers should be given adequate time to provide information, without their complaint closing.

3) Refresh communications providers’ misconceptions about the remit of ADR Schemes

Because of the number of complaints challenged by CPs on the merits of the case rather than being outside the terms, Mott MacDonald considered it would be beneficial to have further dialogue with CPs to clarify any misconceptions or gaps in understanding on the remit of the ADR Schemes.

4) CISAS to track and monitor rejected disputes

Mott MacDonald was unable to carry out adequate analysis on cases where CISAS disagreed with a CP’s dispute and the complaint, therefore, proceeded to adjudication. Mott MacDonald suggested that CISAS should better track these cases and their reasoning for rejecting CPs’ disputes. CISAS began doing so from 23rd January 2018.

The full report can be found online (here).

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