Vulnerable Complainants Policy

Executive Summary

The National Financial Ombud (NFO) recognises that some complainants fall into the ‘vulnerable complainants’ category due to their personal circumstances. The NFO recognises this by having appropriate mechanisms in place to address the unique needs of complainants falling into this category . As an alternative dispute resolution body, we have a duty and an obligation to ensure that appropriate mechanisms are in place to address the needs of vulnerable complainants when investigating complaints.

We fully support the growing international and local movement towards the identification of “vulnerable complainants” in the financial sector. We aim to ensure that this category of complainants receive all the care, protection and guidance that they may need.


This Policy addresses the need for the NFO to develop a policy and implement processes to define “vulnerable complainants”, record this information (so that we can better support the needs of this group of complainants), and collate statistical information to analyse trends.

This Policy therefore aims to:

  • Provide guidance on how we define a vulnerable complainant;
  • Add vulnerable complainants categories and subcategories to our case management system; and
  • Outline the processes and protocols in place to help support vulnerable complainants.

Vulnerable Complainants

A ‘vulnerable complainant’ means a complainant who for any reason (age, gender, education, disability, financial literacy, economic, social etc) requires greater protection and assistance

When financial services providers design products and services that do not consider the needs of vulnerable complainants, there is a risk that these complainants may suffer harm due to their needs not being met from the start of any engagement. Inequality of bargaining power has become an accepted rationale for the enacting of consumer protection legislation to regulate the financial services industry. The greater emphasis on fair and appropriate outcomes for financial services consumers provides the foundation for this new way of thinking. It is accepted that a “one size fits all” approach is no longer the correct approach; instead, the individual complainants needs must be considered.

Financial service providers are expected to provide complainants with appropriate products and services and a level of care that has due regard to the capabilities of the complainants in question. The level of care that would be deemed appropriate for vulnerable complainants may be different from that which would suffice for other complainants. It is crucial that financial firms acknowledge this and implement processes and procedures to cater for the needs of vulnerable complainants, as these complainants may face a significant risk of harm.

There is not as yet a definitive list of criteria for determining who is a “vulnerable complainant” as this is still an evolving concept. In compiling our categories of vulnerable complainants, we had due regard to the types of complaints we have dealt with over many years as well as to international precedents.

Categorisation of vulnerable complainants

We have identified the following categories and subcategories of vulnerable complainants:

  • Main Category 1: Age
    • Between 65 and 75
    • Between 75 and 85
    • Older than 85
  • Main Category 2: Communication and Understanding (Literacy)
    • Not financially literate
    • Language barrier (unable to understand business English)
  • Main Category 3: Disability
    • Wheelchair bound
    • Blind
    • Deaf
    • Mentally disabled
  • Main Category 4: Adverse Life Event
    •  Divorce
    •  Retrenchment
    • Death of a life partner
    • Over-indebted


When a complaint is lodged with the NFO, every attempt is made to establish and record whether the complainant should be identified as a “vulnerable complainant”. If the complainant is deemed to be vulnerable, we will then determine and record the applicable category and subcategory.

Once a complainant has been identified as vulnerable, the necessary degree of care and assistance is then rendered to the complainant by considering his/her personal circumstances. These complaints display a special identifying indicator on the case management system at every stage of the complaints process. We are mindful of specific complainants’ needs when investigating such complaints and this is also communicated to the bank in question.

Examples might include:

  • A complainant in a wheelchair will not be requested to visit a branch without further consideration of the challenges this poses, and possible alternatives being considered.
  • If the complainant is over 85 years of age, every effort is made from inception to expedite resolution of the complaint.
  • In the case of a language barrier, we will try to communicate with that complainant in his/her home language to explain the outcome of our investigation, in addition to addressing written correspondence in English for record purposes. (NFO staff are able to assist complainants in all 11 official languages.)

The NFO has made it a priority to ensure that all staff are properly trained and capable of identifying vulnerable complainants, and that they can engage with them using the required levels of care, attention and respect.

This policy is a living document and will be revisited and updated as we gain more insight and experience and conduct more research into the unique needs of vulnerable complainants – and how we can best meet them as an organisation and as individuals. We are also mindful that the coronavirus pandemic and its (as yet unknown) aftermath may broaden or add to the categories of complainants who should be considered to be vulnerable in this context.

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