With a home improvement boom in full swing and usual working practices curtailed by the pandemic, it’s been a busy year for the Furniture & Home Improvement Ombudsman, says deputy chief ombudsman, Judith Turner …

What is an ombudsman? 

It’s a gender-neutral title for a person or independent body that investigates complaints in a fair and open way to try and reach a resolution without going to court. Ombudsman is the job title of the individual who is charged with investigating and addressing disputes and helping both sides come to an agreement. It’s a term originating from Scandinavia, as Sweden became the first country to appoint an independent official known as an ombudsman to investigate complaints against government officials and agencies.  

How does an ombudsman scheme benefit businesses? 

The Furniture & Home Improvement Ombudsman (FHIO) is an independent, not-for-profit, Government-approved voluntary ombudsman scheme providing Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). We offer ADR training and advice to businesses and consumers, and are a scheme set up by the Office of Fair Trading in 1992, working to protect consumers’ rights and promote fair trade.

… and consumers?

We provide alternative dispute resolution for unresolved disputes against businesses who are members of our scheme. This means that consumers who purchase from one of our members have an alternative to going to court which is free for them to use, and the resolution is binding on the business in question. 

Membership of the ombudsman provides consumers with peace of mind that they have an independent route to recourse if things go wrong – which sometimes, despite a business’ best endeavours, they do.

What changes have you seen to the ADR landscape over the years? 

I’ve definitely seen more emphasis placed on consumers having access to and knowledge of their rights. There seems to be a greater awareness of the channels which are at the public’s disposal should they require further redress to their complaints without going down the route of using the court system. There’s also been more of a shift in this technological era, in which consumers are logging their complaints online, as opposed to over the phone or via the post as they have done in the past. 

It’s important that we adapt to our current and future users’ needs, staying ahead of technological advances whilst retaining accessible channels to ensure those without or with limited technical means do not become disenfranchised. If ADR is not accessible and discoverable by all, there is a risk that access to justice could be compromised.

How do you think the pandemic has affected ADR in general? 

Over this salient period, it’s even more important than ever for consumers to have routes to justice should something go wrong, as the courts are currently facing a backlog of cases due to not being able to hear cases face to face for a prolonged period during the pandemic. 

It’s been key to keep our service available to all, and for consumers to know their rights whilst purchasing goods during or between the respective lockdowns. When non-essential retail was closed, we still kept the light on, figuratively speaking – especially for vulnerable consumers who may have felt they had nowhere else to turn and those, for example, who may have been in the middle of a kitchen installation and were left without cooking equipment or access to clean water. 

We’ve also been making use of virtual inspections, which are based on quality photo or video evidence supplied to us from businesses or consumers via smartphones, which means that some inspection reports can now be taken by consultants at arm’s length. Evidence submitted will be collated and forwarded on to an independent inspector who specialises in the type of product the complaint is regarding. They will review the evidence, and will document the findings in a report that can be used in the dispute.

These inspections were welcomed by consumers who during the pandemic may have been self-isolating or shielding – cases were still able to progress, and they were able to supply crucial evidence to support their case.