Home / Money / Personal Finance /  Things you should know before you knock on the ombudsman’s door

There are several sector Ombudsmen that have been set up by the respective regulators, such as the Banking Ombudsman by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) for banks, the Electricity Ombudsman appointed by the State Electricity Regulatory Commissions, and the Insurance Ombudsman by IRDA. The sphere of operation of these sectoral Ombudsmen is to resolve customer grievances arising out of deficiency of service in a time-bound, cost-effective and impartial manner. Apart from these, one can approach the centralized public grievance redress and monitoring system (CPGRAMS), which is an online platform for lodging grievances against public authorities on any subject.

Each of the sectoral Ombudsmen operate in their exclusive domain of expertise and therefore, before approaching them, it is prudent to refer to the relevant scheme/ rules to be sure of which Ombudsman to approach and whether a grievance falls within its domain or not. For example, the RBI regulations provide that the Ombudsman should not be approached for certain types of disputes such as personal matters or employer-employee disputes in respect of a regulated entity. Similarly, under CPGRAMS, grievances about personal disputes or the RTI are not entertained.

Despite the separation of functions and domains, there are certain common elements that a person must be aware of before approaching an Ombudsman. One, the Ombudsman should not be viewed as a port of first call and an attempt should first be made to resolve the grievance by writing to the concerned entity or authority. If the written complaint on the grievance to the concerned entity/ authority gets rejected wholly or partly, then a complaint to the Ombudsman should be made within the prescribed period under respective rules and guidelines. Two, to avoid conflicting decisions on the same issue, it is also advisable not to approach the relevant sector Ombudsman on a matter which is already sub judice (that is, pending before any other court or tribunal such as the High Court or a consumer court). It is also best not to approach the Ombudsman for an issue that has already been settled or has been dealt with on merits by a competent court, between the same parties. This is to avoid duplication of the process. Three, the complaint should not be abusive or frivolous, or vexatious in nature.

Also, the complainant must provide complete information as far as possible, as specified under the relevant rules. The complaint can be lodged by the complainant personally or through an authorized representative. Do note that the Ombudsman generally rejects complaints that are in the nature of providing suggestions for improvement or are seeking guidance or an explanation.

The concept of an Ombudsman is meant to encourage a settlement between parties and therefore, almost all sectoral Ombudsmen try to mediate between the parties and attempt to resolve the dispute on mutually agreeable terms. Further, the proceedings before the Ombudsman are intended to be summary in nature (that is, not elaborate or complicated). Hence, before approaching the Ombudsman, a person should assess whether the grievance requires producing complicated records, evidence, etc. In such a situation, it may be advisable to approach a court or a tribunal or an arbitrator instead of an Ombudsman.

Another important aspect to consider and apprise oneself of is, whether the award of the Ombudsman is binding or not? It is also useful to study the relevant Ombudsman scheme to understand the possibility of an appeal. For instance, under the Reserve Bank - Integrated Ombudsman Scheme, 2021, regulated entities cannot appeal against an award if the award is passed due to their failure to furnish information as requested or file a reply to the complaint. Conversely, the complainant has a right to appeal if the complaint is rejected on specified grounds such as failure of the complainant to pursue the complaint with reasonable diligence.

The sectoral expertise of an Ombudsman often leads to more optimal results for consumers for a variety of reasons. The proceedings are procedurally less cumbersome and quicker. The members of the Ombudsman have a technical understanding of the matter, which is helpful in technical fields such as electricity, insurance, and banking. Going through the Ombudsman, even if the outcome turns out to be unfavourable, helps the consumer assess the legal strength of her claim if the same is to be adjudicated in a judicial forum. Therefore, a consumer must first approach an Ombudsman before reaching out to other judicial forums.

Mani Gupta is partner, Sarthak Advocates & Solicitors.

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