Redress the Right Way
The Property Ombudsman (TPO) is an alternative approach to resolving consumer disputes in the property sector. Alternative that is to the Courts by providing a facility for independent conflict resolution. A further important responsibility of TPO is to raise standards of service in the residential property industry. It was established 25 years ago.
Ombudsman schemes are generally seen as an important element in any consumer protection regime and indeed a European Directive on Alternative Dispute Resolution has been brought into UK law which will place greater emphasis on the involvement of such schemes in providing routes for consumers to complain about poor service.
Whilst many agents were already voluntarily signed up, with effect from 1st October 2008, all estate agents have been required to register with a government approved Estate Agents Redress Scheme. TPO is the industry’s leading scheme with around 95% of estate agents nationwide signed up. In October 2014, it also became a legal requirement for lettings agents and property managers in England to join one of the three government approved redress schemes, but many agents in Scotland andWales are voluntarily in membership.
As part of their membership, agents agree to follow the TPO Codes of Practice for Residential Estate Agents or Letting Agents. These have been independently accredited by the Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI) and it means that those signing up to the Codes are required to provide additional consumer protection that goes beyond that required by law. Consumers can identify such agents by the blue TPO logo and the CTSI logo in agents’ windows and in their advertising.
By using a member of TPO, the public can be confident about the agent’s approach in its dealings with actual and potential buyers, sellers, tenants or landlords of residential property in the UK. Any client who feels that they have been unfairly disadvantaged by a TPO member and finds themselves unable to reach a resolution after exhausting the agent’s internal complaints procedure, can take their case to the TPO’s dispute resolution service.
The Property Ombudsman provides a free, fair and independent service for dealing with unresolved disputes between sales and letting agents who have joined the TPOand consumers who are actual or potential buyers, sellers, landlords or tenants of residential property in the UK. The Ombudsman is totally independent of agents and reports directly to the TPO Council which has a majority of non-industry members.
A Consumer Guide, available in the offices of all sales and lettings agents who have joined the TPO, informs complainants that:
‘Your complaint may be considered by the Ombudsman, if you believe that the agent has:
•infringed your legal rights; or
•failed to follow the rules and obligations set for agents under any code of practice to which they may subscribe; or
•treated you unfairly; or
•been guilty of maladministration (including inefficiency or undue delay) in a way that results in you losing money or suffering avoidable aggravation, distress and/or inconvenience.
The total number of sales and lettings offices offering TPO’s free, independent route to resolve disputes is over 26,000.
The Property Ombudsman is also the title by which the head of the TPO is known - currently Christopher Hamer. Mr Hamer comments “Whilst my role as Ombudsman means that I am not a regulator and I can only review complaints after a dispute has occurred, making redress a legal requirement for both sales and lettings is extremely positive in enhancing consumer protection.
Clearly it would be better if complaints did not arise in the first place and robust legislation to enforce controls was in place but using an agent who is already a member of TPO is a good safeguard for consumers which also encourages agents to raise their standards.”
He continues “Everyone has a right to fair and transparent treatment from their letting or estate agent. Most are happy with the service they receive, but a small minority of agents will cut corners. By consumers making a conscious decision to only use an agent they know is a member of a redress scheme, we can take one step closer to ridding the industry of unscrupulous agents that give those good reputable businesses a bad name.”
If an agent does not pay an award made by the Ombudsman, they will be referred to TPO’s Disciplinary and Standards Committee (DSC) who can apply a range of sanctions. By becoming a TPO member, the member agent has agreed to the Ombudsman proposing a settlement on the agent’s behalf. On average, less than one member agent a year fails to pay an award made by the Ombudsman. Agents who are expelled from TPO membership for non-compliance of the Codes of Practice are not allowed to join another redress scheme. Since this is now a legal requirement, an agent expelled would have to close or would be trading illegally and would likely be fined £5000 by Trading Standards.