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technical note

compensation for distress, inconvenience or other non-financial loss

what this note covers

This technical note sets out our current approach to considering - where we uphold a complaint wholly or partly - whether we will tell a business to pay compensation for any distress, inconvenience or other non-financial loss that it caused the consumer.

In addition to telling the financial business to pay compensation for financial loss or to put something right, we can also tell the business to pay costs and/or compensation for:

  • pain and suffering; or
  • damage to reputation; or
  • distress or inconvenience.

what is meant by "distress", "inconvenience" and "pain and suffering"

Distress and inconvenience often go hand in hand. Where something has gone seriously wrong, it is quite common for the consumer to have experienced both inconvenience and distress.

Distress includes embarrassment, anxiety, disappointment and loss of expectation. The degree of distress involved can vary widely. On the one hand, it can be little more than a relatively minor annoyance. But in other cases, it can cause loss of sleep or even prolonged ill-health.

Inconvenience can include any expenditure of time and/or effort by the consumer that has resulted from the business's conduct. Again, in relatively minor cases this may not amount to a significant burden. But it can include severe disruption and a great deal of wasted time.

Pain and suffering can be considered as more extreme forms of distress and inconvenience. They might arise, for example, in cases involving delays in arranging or paying for medical treatment under an insurance policy.

when does the ombudsman consider compensation for distress or inconvenience?

When we uphold the consumer's complaint (wholly or partly), we consider whether it is appropriate to tell the business to pay compensation for distress or inconvenience caused by the business - even if the consumer did not specifically ask us to do so. Of course, that does not mean that we will tell the business to pay compensation in every case. Exceptionally, we may also tell the business to pay compensation for distress and inconvenience caused by the business in handling the complaint particularly poorly, even if we do not uphold the underlying complaint itself.

The courts usually award compensation for distress or inconvenience only where the object of the contract is to provide pleasure, relaxation or peace of mind. We usually consider compensation more widely, reflecting the legal requirement that we should work on the basis of "what is, in the opinion of the ombudsman, fair and reasonable in all the circumstances". We usually consider it fair that a financial business which has caused material distress or inconvenience or other non-financial loss should be required to pay reasonable compensation for that.

what about business customers?

We treat sole traders and partnerships the same as personal customers. But a limited company cannot, by definition, suffer distress or pain and suffering - although it can experience inconvenience. If the customer is the limited company, we cannot compensate the directors or shareholders personally.

was it the financial business's fault?

Usually, the question of compensation only arises after a business, or its appointed agent, has breached a duty or been responsible for maladministration in its dealings with the consumer. "Maladministration" might include delays, clerical or procedural errors, rudeness, incorrect or inadequate explanations or simply a failure to respond to the consumer's reasonable requests.

We will not automatically tell the business to pay compensation just because the consumer has suffered some distress or inconvenience - it has to have been caused by the financial business. For example:

  • Making an insurance claim following a death or injury is likely to be distressing - and many situations giving rise to insurance claims, such as car accidents or break-ins, can be inconvenient and distressing. That is not the financial business's fault. Unless the business itself has caused distress or inconvenience through some error or failure of service, we would not be justified in telling the business to pay compensation.
  • An investor may suffer considerable anxiety if an investment does not produce the hoped-for return. However, assuming that the risks of the investment were properly explained to the investor at the outset, and that a suitable product has been administered correctly, we would not decide that the financial business was liable for the anxiety.

was the degree of distress or inconvenience material?

In many cases, even though there has been a certain amount of inconvenience and/or distress, it will not usually be appropriate for us to tell the business to pay compensation. We will not decide the business should pay if the degree of inconvenience or distress appears to be slight.

All of us suffer some inconvenience in our day-to-day lives and in our dealings with commercial organisations. For example, the fact that a phone line is busy or that a name is not spelt correctly can be annoying - but neither is likely to result in compensation (unless the problem persists).

how did the business handle the consumer's complaint?

In addition to considering the subject matter of the complaint, it may also be relevant for us to look at the business's subsequent actions in addressing the consumer's concerns. Businesses are entitled to a reasonable opportunity to investigate complaints, but they are required to meet certain standards when doing so (see DISP 1 in the FCA handbook).

The fact that the consumer has had to make a complaint is unlikely to justify compensation for distress or inconvenience. But we are likely to consider awarding compensation if the business has handled the complaint badly - causing the consumer distress or inconvenience - whether or not we uphold the initial subject matter of the complaint. Handling a complaint badly can include:

  • excessive delay; or
  • requiring the consumer to take additional and unnecessary steps; or
  • refusing to settle a case at an early stage, despite knowing that the ombudsman had previously upheld similar complaints.

what factors are considered in deciding compensation for distress or inconvenience?

The aim of any compensation payment we tell the business to make is to compensate the consumer for the distress and inconvenience suffered. It is not intended to act as a fine, or as a general punishment of the business.

There are no hard-and-fast rules about the amounts that will be appropriate. It will depend on the circumstances of each individual case, which might include:

  • the severity of any distress;
  • the degree of any inconvenience;
  • the period over which the problem occurred;
  • the nature of the business's actions (or inaction).

It may also be relevant to take into account the impact of the consumer's own actions. For example:

  • delays in resolving a matter may have been caused partly by the consumer;
  • the consumer may not have taken reasonable steps to minimise the distress or inconvenience;
  • the consumer may have rejected a benefit that was available and that did not compromise their ability to pursue the complaint (for example, the business may have offered to undertake some remedial action but not all that the consumer wanted).

When we assess the level of compensation, we consider the consumer's individual circumstances (including their state of health and age). We will consider the consumer's own assessment of the degree of distress or inconvenience they have suffered, but this will not be decisive. Some consumers may be reluctant to discuss distressing matters and may understate the degree of distress or inconvenience they have suffered, while others may overstate the position.

Our starting point in assessing compensation is the level of distress or inconvenience which actually resulted - even if the business did not foresee the degree of distress or inconvenience that its failure would cause.

So the same act of maladministration by a business could lead to very different levels of compensation depending on its consequences and the other circumstances of the case.

For example, if a business disclosed a consumer's address to a third party - without the consumer's permission - this may have little practical consequence. In those circumstances, modest compensation or even a simple apology might be appropriate.

But if the information was given out to the consumer's estranged and sometimes violent partner, there may be very significant implications. This might justify significant compensation - particularly if the business knew, or should reasonably have known, about those implications.

allowance for consumer's time

In awarding compensation, we sometimes make allowance for the time the consumer needed to spend to put things right - though not usually for the consumer's time in dealing with us. This will normally be at a modest rate (around £50 to £100 a day, and not more than £10 per hour). A higher amount may be appropriate in the case of business complaints - but not usually as much as the business's charge-out rate.

allowance for consumer's expenses

We may also make allowance for expenses reasonably incurred - such as a reasonable estimate of the cost of phone calls and postage.

Where the business's actions have denied the consumer access to a service, the cost of obtaining that service by another means (even where the consumer did not in fact do this) can sometimes be useful measure. For example, where a business's actions denied the consumer the use of a car for a period, it will be relevant to consider the cost of hiring a car (or other forms of transport).

professional fees

Payments for distress or inconvenience do not cover other costs that arise from the business's actions in handling the complaint. For example, in a few cases we may make a separate costs award for professional fees which a consumer needed to incur when bringing the complaint to us. However, such payments are likely to be rare, as it is not normally necessary for consumers to get help from professional advisers to bring a complaint.

how a business might damage a consumer's reputation

A business may damage a consumer's reputation in various ways. For example, damage may arise because the business's actions resulted in:

  • a third party being misinformed about the consumer's circumstances (for example, their creditworthiness); or
  • the improper disclosure of private information (for example, medical or other confidential records) which may be damaging to the consumer's reputation or safety.

how we assess any compensation

When we assess whether we should tell the business to pay compensation for damage to reputation, and the amount of such compensation if appropriate, we apply similar considerations to those for distress and inconvenience payments. We are also likely to consider:

  • how widely the information was made available;
  • the nature of the information involved;
  • the impact the information had; and
  • the consumer's previous reputation.

The amount of compensation for damage to reputation may be significant where specific damage can be identified. In addition to telling the business to pay compensation we may, where appropriate, consider requiring the business to minimise the impact of its earlier actions (by, for example, ensuring that credit-reference agency records are corrected).

making compensation payments

Where appropriate, compensation for distress, inconvenience or other non-financial loss will be identified separately from any compensation for financial loss. In most cases the compensation for distress, inconvenience or other non-financial loss is likely to be payable by the business direct to the consumer. Sometimes, however, if the consumer owes money to the business, the ombudsman may tell the business that the compensation payment should be set off against the debt.

scale of payments

Financial compensation will often be the only appropriate form of redress. But there will sometimes be cases where we are likely to consider some other form of action to be more suitable.

For example, we will sometimes tell the financial business to make an apology or to provide the consumer with an appropriate service which relates to the original problem.

Where the degree of distress, inconvenience or other non-financial loss is enough to mean compensation should be paid, the amount is likely to be modest. Most compensation is for less than £300 and in only a small number of exceptional cases does the compensation exceed £1,000. Generally, compensation for pain and suffering is likely to be higher than compensation for distress or inconvenience.

Below are some examples to show our general approach to telling businesses to pay compensation for distress and inconvenience and other non-financial losses. The examples are based on real-life cases - but are not precedents. Assessing the appropriate amount of compensation depends on the particular circumstances of each case.

Depending on the consumer's circumstances, repeated or aggravated errors may cause more distress and/or inconvenience than an isolated error - as reflected in the example case studies below.

cases where the ombudsman awarded modest compensation
(less than £300)

£50:

  • Minor inconvenience caused by the financial business not getting the consumer's address right, despite a couple of requests, for two months.
  • Minor administrative error by the financial business which caused the consumer to have to write to/phone it a few times before the problem was sorted out.
  • Minor, but identifiable, delay by the financial business in paying out under a policy claim.

£100:

  • Administrative error by the financial business which caused the consumer to have to write to/phone it a significant number of times before the problem was sorted out.
  • The financial business lengthened by three weeks the time the consumer was unable to return home from alternative accommodation paid for by the financial business, following damage which had made the consumer's home uninhabitable.
  • Two-month delay by the financial business in providing the surrender proceeds of a policy.

£200:

  • The financial business caused the consumer to be without transport for two weeks, when under the terms of the insurance it should have provided an alternative vehicle while the consumer's car was off the road as a result of an accident (travel costs incurred would be considered separately).
  • The financial business failed to provide information which it always knew it held to the consumer - to enable the consumer to sort out a matter with a third party. This meant the issue remained outstanding for three months longer than it would otherwise have done.
  • Disappointment at being told the surrender proceeds of a policy were to be materially less than the consumer was previously led to believe by the financial business, because the business made an error in calculation.
  • Significant distress because the financial business continually failed to deal with an apparently eligible - and potentially successful - complaint.
  • Significant delay where the financial business failed to follow a well-established regulatory or ombudsman approach, when it had every reason to believe it would be held responsible for the complaint.

cases where the ombudsman awarded significant compensation
(£300 - £999)

£350:

  • The financial business (or contractors it appointed) caused the consumer personally to carry out significant cleaning or decoration following repairs by the appointed contractors.
  • Loss of opportunity for the consumer to make other investment arrangements because of the financial business's delay.
  • Disappointment and inconvenience caused when inheritance tax planning failed. Being led to believe exemption from tax had been obtained when it had not.

£500:

  • The financial business's repeated errors caused serious and continuing embarrassment to the consumer over a significant period of time, when the consumer tried to make payments using their credit card - after having been assured, on several occasions, that earlier problems had been resolved.
  • Following the death of the consumer's husband, the financial business repeatedly wrote to her husband - rather than to her - about the insurance claim.
  • Delay of a year by the financial business in providing correct information about cashing in a bond. The bond proceeds were needed by the executor for distributing under the will.
  • Significant delay where the financial business failed to follow a well-established regulatory or ombudsman approach, when it had every reason to believe it would be held responsible, and every reason to know that the likely policy shortfall would be distressing to the consumer.

£750:

  • The financial business failed to arrange and pay for alternative accommodation for the consumer and their young children following insured damage - causing them to remain in their property for a month without essential facilities.
  • Excessive delays by the financial business right from the start - ie failing to accept responsibility for its mistakes, frustrating the complaint process, and fighting the case through every stage in the ombudsman service, despite the ombudsman service pointing out at an early stage that the business was failing to follow a well-established regulatory or ombudsman approach.
  • Policy written in trust incorrectly by the financial business - where the error cannot be unravelled and/or legal advice was needed to offset the unintended results of the way the trust was written.
  • Pension policy under-paid for a significant period, leading the consumer to suffer reduced living standards for a significant period of time.

cases where the ombudsman awarded exceptional compensation (£1,000 or more)

£1,000:

  • The financial business wrongly "bounced" a cheque drawn by a business customer on its account. The cheque was payable to the customer's main supplier, in the same business community. The cheque was paid several weeks later, but the business was caused significant embarrassment within the community and, until sorted out, risked substantial loss of business. The business's proprietor also had to spend a significant amount of time sorting the problem out, as well as reassuring other suppliers and customers - to try to stop the adverse effects of a whispering campaign.
  • Repair work by the financial business (or its appointed contractor) exposed the consumer and his family to health risks (eg from asbestos).
  • Significant error by the financial business in connection with a pension policy meant that the consumer had to consider working again after initial retirement.

£2,500:

  • The financial business wrongly disclosed the consumer's address to their violent partner - even though it knew about the difficult domestic circumstances. The partner subsequently had their home broken into and was assaulted, resulting in several days in hospital.

relevant case law

Watts v Morrow [1991] 4 All ER 937

The judge in this case said that:

a contract-breaker is not in general liable for any distress, frustration, anxiety, displeasure, vexation, tension or aggravation which his breach of contract may cause to the innocent party.

However, the judge added that this general rule did not apply to certain contracts where the aim is to provide "pleasure, relaxation or peace of mind".

Thompson v Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis [1998] QB 498
This case is sometimes cited as establishing an hourly "tariff" for cases of wrongful arrest and imprisonment by the police. But we consider it simply provides guidelines to use as a starting point, which we take into account - alongside the individual circumstances of each particular case.

The court said:

(4) In a straightforward case of wrongful arrest and imprisonment or malicious prosecution the jury should be informed of the approximate figure to be taken as the correct starting point for basic damages for the actual loss of liberty or for the wrongful prosecution, and also given an approximate ceiling figure. It should be explained that these are no more than guideline figures based on the Judge's experience and on the awards in other cases and the actual figure is one on which they must decide.

(5) In a straightforward case of wrongful arrest and imprisonment the starting point is likely to be about £500 for the first hour during which the plaintiff has been deprived of his or her liberty. After the first hour an additional sum is to be awarded, but that sum should be on a reducing scale so as to keep the damages proportionate with those payable in personal injury cases and because the plaintiff is entitled to have a higher rate of compensation for the initial shock of being arrested. As a guideline we consider, for example, that a plaintiff who has been wrongly kept in custody for twenty four hours should for this alone normally be regarded as entitled to an award of about £3,000.

For subsequent days the daily rate will be on a progressively reducing scale. [These figures are lower than those mentioned by the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland in Oscar v Chief Constable of The Royal Ulster Constabulary (unreported 1993) where a figure of about £600 per hour was thought to be appropriate for the first 12 hours. That case, however only involved unlawful detention for two periods of 30 minutes in respect of which the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland awarded £300 for the first period and £200 for the second period. On the other hand the approach is substantially more generous than that adopted by this court in the unusual case of Cumber v Hoddinott (unreported 23 January 1995) in which this court awarded £350 global damages where the jury had awarded no compensatory damages and £50 exemplary damages.]

This is part of our online technical resource which sets out our general approach to complaints about a wide range of financial products and issues. We would like your feedback on how helpful you found it. Please also use the feedback form below to tell us about anything you think we could clarify or explain better.

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  • The law requires us to decide each case on the basis of our existing powers and what is fair in the circumstances of that particular case.
    We take into account the law, regulators' rules and guidance, relevant codes and good industry practice at the relevant time.
    We do not have power to make rules for financial businesses.
    Our current approach may develop in the light of circumstances disclosed by further cases we receive.
    We may decide that fairness requires a different approach in a particular case.