The Minister for Finance and the Minister of State for Financial Services have recently published the General Scheme of the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman Bill 2016 (the “Bill”). The Bill sets out in detail a proposal to amalgamate the offices of the Financial Services Ombudsman and Pensions Ombudsman into the office of the Financial Services and Pensions Ombudsman (“FSPO”).

The Public Service Reform Plan (the “Plan”) launched in November 2011, provided for the rationalisation and review of State Bodies. The Plan aimed to deliver enhanced service efficiencies, together with ensuring a more focused and democratically accountable Public Service. The Plan put in motion the idea of amalgamating the offices of the Financial Services Ombudsman and Pensions Ombudsman. Minister of State for Financial Services, Eoghan Murphy noted that the publication of the Bill “is a significant milestone in the progression of legislation to amalgamate the offices of the Financial Services Ombudsman and Pensions Ombudsman”.

Proposals outlined in the Bill

The draft legislation covers three main areas:

  1. the role and functions of the FSPO;
  2. the establishment and operation of the FSPO Council; and
  3. the consumer complaints procedure.

The Bill proposes to dissolve the existing separate offices and provides for the transfer of the functions of both the Financial Services Ombudsman and Pensions Ombudsman to the new office of the FSPO.

The Bill also references the transfer of assets, property, rights and liabilities, the continuation of leases, licences and permissions, together with the transfer of responsibility for liabilities arising before the transfer from the dissolved bodies of the Financial Services Ombudsman and the Pensions Ombudsman to the FSPO.

The Bill provides for the setup and structure of the FSPO Council and the dissolution of the existing Financial Services Ombudsman Council which shall come into operation on the day of establishment of the FSPO. The Bill sets out in detail the functions and powers of the Council, including the power to make regulations to set levies and fees and have appropriate powers to collect levies. This will be a new governing body for the Pensions Ombudsman as it has no similar structure currently in place.

Other notable changes indicated in the Bill include:

  1. the FSPO can continue a case following the death of a beneficiary;
  2. the FSPO can issue preliminary determinations to give the parties a level of expectation of the final decision; and
  3. the FSPO has the power to inform the relevant authorities in instances where there is a persistent pattern of complaints.

The Bill sets out the powers of mediation, investigation, and adjudication of the FSPO. It will retain the powers of a High Court Judge in carrying out investigations. The FSPO will adopt rules of procedure for dealing with complaints and will have to publish these rules.

The Bill also proposes allowing the FSPO waive the requirement that the complaint has to go through an internal dispute resolution process. This would occur in instances where the “complaint is of such importance as to warrant waiving the process”.

Conclusion

The Minister for Finance confirmed the Bill to amalgamate the offices has now become priority legislation, noting, “This legislation concerning the hearing of consumer complaints by the Ombudsman is important legislation and should help improve the service to the consumer of financial services and pensions provided by two existing bodies.”

The Pensions Ombudsman dealt with 1413 new cases in 2015, which represented a 7% increase from 2014. If this upward trend continues it will be interesting to see whether the office of the FSPO will have adequate resources to cope. Or will we all hark back to the glory days when Paul Kenny, who was the Pensions Ombudsman for over 13 years, reigned supreme at his offices on Upper Mount Street?