This note explains the "six-month time limit" for referring complaints to us. It sets out our approach when applying the rule and gives examples of cases where we have considered whether the consumer's failure to comply with the six-month time limit was as a result of "exceptional circumstances".
We do not have a free hand to investigate any complaint that is referred to us. The complaints-handling rules we follow are set out in the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA)'s handbook of rules and guidance.
Financial businesses responding to complaints (called "respondents" in the rules) are required to issue a written final response when they have completed an investigation of a complaint.
The final response must tell the consumer that they can refer the complaint to us – and they have six months to do so. If the consumer fails to refer the complaint to us within six months, it is unlikely that we will be able to consider the merits of their complaint.
The rules (DISP 2.8.2R(1)) say that we cannot consider a complaint referred to us more than six months after the date on which the financial business sent the consumer its final response.
But there are exceptions. We can consider the complaint if in our view the consumer's failure to comply with the six-month time limit was "as a result of exceptional circumstances", or if the financial business does not object.
Yes. The provision allowing a financial business not to object to our considering a complaint outside the six-month time limit was first introduced on 1 February 2003. Before then, the rules required us to apply the time limits whether the financial business objected or not.
There was also a change to the rule on 1 September 2003. Since then, the rules have allowed six months from the date the final response was sent – usually the date of the letter. Before then, from 1 December 2001 to 31 August 2003, the rules allowed six months from the date the consumers were "advised" by the financial business of their right to refer the complaint to us – usually the date the consumers received the final response letter.
We apply the version of the rule in force at the time the complaint was referred to us.
The definition of a final response includes a requirement to tell the consumer about the Financial Ombudsman Service and the six-month time limit. It says that a final response is:
"... a written response from the respondent which:
(a) accepts the complaint and, where appropriate, offers redress or remedial action; or
(b) offers redress or remedial action without accepting the complaint; or
(c) rejects the complaint and gives reasons for doing so;
(d) encloses a copy of the Financial Ombudsman Service's standard explanatory leaflet; and
(e) informs the complainant that, if he remains dissatisfied with the respondent’s response, he may now refer his complaint to the Financial Ombudsman Service and must do so within six months."
If the final response was issued after 1 December 2001 and does not mention the six-month time limit, then the limit does not apply, irrespective of whether or not the financial business wishes to object.
Occasionally we see complaints where the financial business replied to the complaint before 1 December 2001 (when the Financial Ombudsman Service acquired its powers). The ombudsman schemes in place before 1 December 2001 had different rules, and our approach depends on the position of the former scheme in question.
The FSA's handbook says that a "month" means a "calendar month". So we apply the ordinary legal meaning of a calendar month. This means that ordinarily a calendar month finishes on the corresponding date of the following month. But if the calendar month starts at the end of a month which contains more days than the following month, then it finishes at the end of the following month. And so:
A complaint can only be "referred" to us after the financial business has issued its final response – or, in the absence of a final response letter, if we receive the complaint more than eight weeks after the consumer first complained to the financial business. Earlier contact between the consumer and us does not constitute a "referral".
To "refer"' a complaint, it is not necessary for the consumer to provide us with all the details of their complaint – nor must we have received a completed complaint form (although we will ask the consumers to complete a complaint form before we start our investigation).
It is only necessary for the consumer to tell us that they intend to pursue the complaint with us. A "referral" can be made in writing (by letter, fax or email) or by phone.
We deal with the objection before looking into the merits of the complaint. If we agree with the financial business, we contact the consumer, explaining our reasons. If we disagree with the financial business, we will contact it to explain why. In either case, the "losing" party has the right to come back and ask for an ombudsman's review and final decision.
We expect financial businesses to raise time limit objections promptly – at the beginning of our investigation process. If an objection is raised later, whether or not it is effective will depend on the circumstances.
We will expect to see evidence that the consumer was affected by circumstances that were exceptional – and that those circumstances caused the delay. The guidance to the rules says that an example might be where the consumer was incapacitated by illness.
Whether or not we accept the consumer's argument is likely to depend on the following (among other things):
In these cases we decided that the consumer's failure to comply with the six-month time limit was as a result of exceptional circumstances.
case study 1
Mr A, who was diagnosed with stomach cancer three months after the financial business issued its final response, referred his complaint to us four weeks late. He told us that he had been concentrating on his illness, was depressed, and that the chemotherapy had made him unwell. His GP confirmed this.
case study 2
Mr and Mrs B, who referred their complaint six weeks late, provided evidence to show that Mrs B had been diagnosed with colon cancer and undergone an operation shortly before the financial business issued its final response letter. She had received chemotherapy and attended hospital for treatment throughout the six-month period.
case study 3
Mr and Mrs C, who had until 8 October to refer their complaint to us, wrote to the financial business after receiving its final response and disputed its findings. When the financial business replied, it reminded the couple that they could refer the complaint to us and said, in error, that they had until 15 December to do so. The couple referred their complaint to us on 26 October. They told us they thought they had until 15 December. We did not think this was unreasonable.
case study 4
Ms D, who referred her complaint two months late, told us that she was unexpectedly abroad (caring for a sick relative) throughout the six-month period. She did not have sight of her post during that time. She returned to the UK shortly before the end of the six-month period and that was when she first saw the business's final response. She was unwell herself on her return, requiring hospital treatment.
case study 5
Mrs E, who complained two weeks late, told us her mother had died shortly before the six-month time period had expired – and this meant she ended up referring her complaint shortly after the deadline.
In these cases we sympathised with the consumer's personal circumstances, but did not think they would have prevented the consumer from referring their complaint in time.
case study 6
Mr and Mrs F, who referred their complaint three-months late, told us they had found the financial business' response intimidating and had initially thought it pointless to continue. But they had later had a change of heart. We did not think the tone of the financial business' letter was inappropriate.
case study 7
Mr and Mrs G, who referred their complaint two and a half years late, told us that they did not initially refer their complaint to us as they thought it had little prospect of success. They were later prompted to resurrect matters by encouraging media reports about similar complaints.
case study 8
Mr H, who referred his complaint five months late, told us that he had been suffering from depression following the breakdown of his marriage. He had, however, continued to write to the financial business about his complaint during the six-month period.
case study 9
Mr I who referred his complaint 12 months late, told us that he had been made redundant shortly after receiving the final response letter – and had not been able to give the matter his full attention until after he had returned to work.
case study 10
Mrs J, who referred her complaint several months late, told us that the demands of running her own business had prevented her from progressing her complaint