Ofcom have today released a consultation on the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Complaints Handling Procedures to evaluate inadequate or inappropriate procedures that could cause detriment to consumers. The review looks in to the ability of consumers to exercise their right to take a dispute to ADR as well as balancing the ability with the costs.
General Condition 14.7 states that every communication provider (CP) must be a member of an approved ADR scheme, and must comply with the rules and decisions made by the ADR scheme. General condition 14.4 also requires communications providers to have a complaints handling code, which is approved by Ofcom.
Alternative Dispute Resolution
The ADR process is open to consumers and small businesses (under 10 employees). Currently, to invoke the ADR process, a complaint must either run for 12 weeks or until a "deadlock letter" is issued by the communications provider. A deadlock letter indicates that the CP does not believe that the complaint will be resolved without going to ADR.
Responses to Ofcom's information request of CPs found that the majority of complaints are resolved within 8 weeks if they are able to be resolved, and only 10% of complaints still unresolved at 8 weeks are resolved by week 12. Accordingly, Ofcom is proposing changes such that the ADR schemes accept a complaint eight weeks after a complaint is first received, or earlier if a deadlock letter has been issued. This would bring forward the time for resolution to a problem which would be welcomed by consumers, particularly if the last 4 weeks tend to make little headway into resolving the problem.
Research by Ofcom into consumer awareness of ADR schemes shows that it is at an unacceptably low level with 81% of UK adults aged 15+ in 2006 not aware of either of Otelo or CISAS, with 83% unaware in 2007. 5% of 15-24 year olds said they had heard of at least one. Of lower income groups (below £17.5k annual household income), only 9% were aware, whilst 20% of those earning £17.5k - £30k had heard of CISAS or Otelo.
Ofcom is proposing to help improve this knowledge of ADR schemes and one step towards this is requiring a CP to give written notice about ADR five working days after a CP first receives a complaint, unless the complaint is resolved at first point of contact. It should also give written notice eight weeks after the complaint is received if not resolved, or when issuing a deadlock notice.
Complaints Handling Procedures
Ofcom believe that the current regulation of complaints handling is not as effective as it should be. A significant proportion of complainants are very dissatisfied with the way their complaint is handled. To address this, Ofcom is proposing a single Code of Practice (COP) setting out high level mandatory standards that each CP would have to adhere to as a minimum. This would be a change to a single code of practice that all providers would abide by rather than the current system where each providers gets their own code approved by Ofcom.
The accessibility to complaints is another concern, and Ofcom have looked into the options of requiring CPs to have either a free phone number of a geographic call rate number for making complaints. They do not believe it fair that CPs can make money via revenue share of, for example, 0870 or premium rate numbers when users are making complaints, but do believe that a reasonable cost to the consumer would be acceptable.
To be able to ensure that CPs are compliant with the proposed regulations if implemented, Ofcom are proposing that CPs should have new record keeping obligations. At the very least, they should log for 15 months a minimum of: details of the complainant, including name and address; date on which the complaint was first received; a description of the complaint; and a description of how the CP dealt with the complaint.
Whilst these are just proposals for changes at the moment, assuming there isn't a large amount of uproar from communication providers about these changes, it is not unreasonable to expect these to come in to force in the not too distant future. Written views and comments are to be received by the 4th of October 2008. If anyone is currently having issues with their broadband provider, we suggest a look through our guide on resolving a problem which contains advice on the steps you can take.