COVID-19 forces POS and FOS office closures – what does it mean for complaints?

30 March 2020. Published by Ashley Daniells, Associate and Christopher Cole, Associate

The COVID-19 outbreak (and the subsequent UK lockdown) continues to impact our daily lives and it seems the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) and The Pensions Ombudsman (POS) are not immune. With office closures announced, we look at the impact this will have on outstanding complaints and those yet to be made.

The Pensions Ombudsman

In an announcement on their website last week, POS have confirmed that from the 18 March 2020 their office has closed in line with the COVID-19 lockdown rules set by the government. This means that they can no longer deal with any correspondence that has been received by post since that date, nor will they be able to for the foreseeable future. As a result, whilst the current lockdown remains in place, POS have confirmed that they will only be focussing on existing enquiries and complaints and will not be accepting any new complaints. Not only does this mean that new complaints won't be actioned, but consumers will need to re-submit their complaint once the restrictions have been lifted and the office has been reopened.  POS advises that all existing complaints will be progressed as normal.

Of course, consumers will want to know what impact this will have on the ability to bring a complaint, especially given the POS' 3 year time limit. POS have confirmed that they are aware of the impact on the complaints which are nearing the 3-year time limit and that they will use their discretion to extend the usual time limit for those new complainants

The Financial Ombudsman Service

The FOS have also released a similar update on their website, confirming that their office has now closed, whilst also requesting that complainants do not send anything in by post while the lockdown continues. Unlike POS, the FOS are not yet issuing a total ban on new complaints. However, they ask anyone who has recently sent in a complaint form by post to resubmit their complaint through their new online form. The FOS have also confirmed that their phone lines remain open but with limited availability (between 9.30am and 2.00pm, Monday to Friday) and calls should only be made if someone is facing severe ill-health or financial hardship. As a result, the FOS have confirmed that it will take them longer than usual to respond to any correspondence.

We anticipate that there will be a lull in new referrals to FOS, or at the very least a lull in new complaints being processed. Of course, on the issuing of final response letters a complainant has 6 months to refer their complaint to the FOS (DISP 2.8.2). There is currently no guidance on how the 6 month referral period will apply but we anticipate the FOS will take a more lenient approach to the 6 month rule. As such those responding to complaints will need to be aware they are unlikely to be able to rely on the 6 month time limit as strictly as before; given that the closure of FOS is likely to count as a reasonable excuse for not having referred complaints in time.

The FOS may in due course confirm whether a similar amnesty to that offered by POS will be put in place for complaints that fall foul of the 6-month time limit.

Impact on complaints

Both the POS and the FOS are currently operating at a significant backlog when it comes to dealing with new complaints and correspondence. It may be that this reduced service will allow them to clear some of the backlog and so we may see some older claims that have been pending for a long time start to become active again. Indeed we have already seen an increase in final decisions being received over the last week.