If you come to the end of your tether over a complaint about goods or services, from today you may be able to take it to the new Consumer Ombudsman.

The free service, which is believed to be the first of its kind, will deal with complaints about goods or services across any sectors that aren't currently served by an official Ombudsman scheme.

So you could take gripes to it about retailers, second hand car sellers, and service providers carrying out home maintenance, improvements and installation, for example. See MoneySavingExpert.com's How to Complain guide to push your complaint to the max if things go wrong.

It's being run by the Ombudsman Services – the independent complaints arbitrator in the communications, energy, property, copyright and retail sector – and has been set up following the successful trial of a retail complaints service launched earlier this year.

Crucially, decisions made by the Consumer Ombudsman will be legally binding on the companies involved, meaning it can force firms to refund, compensate, or apologise to a customer – but only where the company has signed up to the voluntary scheme.

Martin Lewis
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'Consumer Ombudsman should help to introduce genuine change'

Martin Lewis, founder and editor of MoneySavingExpert.com says: "A genuine Ombudsman is a powerful force for consumers, easier and cheaper than the courts, and can look not just at the law but whether you've been treated fairly. 

"In sectors where there isn't an Ombudsman we've seen companies deliberately reject complaints from people because it is cheaper than sorting it out, even though they know the complaint is fair.

"This new service should help to introduce genuine change. People facing faulty goods and shoddy service from too many companies have been left with the choice of paying to go to the small claims court or accepting whatever redress they are offered.

"I'm therefore delighted to hear the Consumer Ombudsman is launching to fill this gap in the market. I just hope all companies that believe in treating their customers will sign up to it."

So how good is it?

The Ombudsman Services says it's handled over 1.3m complaints since it began operating in 2002, and adds that it has a "wealth of multi-sector experience".

The key boon of its new Consumer Ombudsman service is that decisions are legally binding on the retailer or service provider, but not on consumers. So if you're unhappy with its response, you can take your complaint to court.

However, as outlined above, a major drawback is that it can only enforce decisions on companies that sign up to it. It says it can't tell us how many firms have joined so far, but says it hopes more retailers will come on board following its launch.

The Consumer Ombudsman doesn't have the power to punish companies, issue fines, or ban companies from trading.

Consumer Ombudsman launches for shoppers with a gripe
Consumer Ombudsman launches for shoppers with a gripe

How far back will it look at complaints?

The Consumer Ombudsman will take on all complaints about goods or services bought after 1 January 2015.

Going forward however, you'll have up to six years (five in Scotland) to bring complaints to the Consumer Ombudsman, as long as the trader didn't tell you if it would take any further action on your complaint.

If the trader does tell you verbally or in writing that it won't take any further action on the complaint, you have one year from the date you are told this to bring the complaint to the Consumer Ombudsman.

How do I complain to the Consumer Ombudsman?

Complaints can be submitted via the new Consumer Ombudsman website and you can also upload supporting documents.

Alternatively you can call 0333 300 1620, or write to Consumer Ombudsman, PO Box 1263, Warrington, WA4 9RE.

However, you must first take your complaint to the company involved. If it doesn't respond within eight weeks or you receive an unsatisfactory response, only then can you take it to the Consumer Ombudsman.

If you have a minor or simple complaint, you can take it to the Consumer Ombudsman sooner than the eight week time frame, although it hasn't clarified when this might occur or how long to wait before referring your complaint.

If you're complaining via our online complaints tool, Resolver, it too will help you forward your complaint on to the Consumer Ombudsman where necessary.

How is the service funded?

The Consumer Ombudsman is free to use for consumers. Companies have to pay a fee, however, we're awaiting more information as to how this is calculated and when this is paid, eg. is it based on membership or based on individual complaints.

'Swift, independent resolution to a problem without the risk of legal bills'

Lewis Shand Smith, chief ombudsman at the Ombudsman Services, says: "Our research shows that as a nation we're complaining more than ever before, but that frustratingly we don't always know where to go.

"As a result, we've opened our doors to complaints in any sector. This is good for consumers because it will provide swift, independent resolution to a problem without the risk of legal bills and drawn-out court proceedings.

"It's also good for business as having a proper redress system in place means they will build up consumers trust."

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