Australians took more than 300,000 disputes to the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) in its first four years, with consumers securing nearly $900 million in compensation and refunds.
AFCA also identified and reported 227 definite systemic issues and serious contraventions of the law to federal regulators, resulting in an additional $280 million in refunds to 6.5 million consumers.
Over that time the ombudsman service worked with about 5,000 victims of over 50 weather-related natural disasters, as well as more than 24,000 people experiencing financial difficulty. It registered more than 17,000 COVID-related complaints, helping to resolve disputes involving financial products such as travel insurance as well as the early release of super amid the pandemic.
It also played a key role in calling out misleading and deceptive conduct in the sales of funeral plans to Indigenous communities, finding in numerous decisions that these consumers had been unfairly targeted. AFCA ombudsmen issued 178 decisions, awarding more than $1.4 million in refunds and interest, in cases involving Aboriginal Community Benefit Fund (ACBF) companies.
“The past four years have demonstrated the critical role AFCA plays,” its Chief Executive Officer and Chief Ombudsman, David Locke, said. “As we move into a period of heightened economic uncertainty, and amid increasing natural disasters, the need for AFCA’s services has never been greater.”
AFCA opened its doors on 1 November 2018 as a “one-stop-shop” bringing together dispute resolution services previously offered by three separate organisations. Its services are free for consumers, including small businesses, and a cost-effective and efficient alternative to court action for both consumers and financial firms.
Over its first four years AFCA resolved 60 per cent of cases in less than 60 days – in two out of three cases by facilitating agreement between the two sides.
Mr Locke said AFCA would prefer that complaints never reached it, but if they did the best outcome for everyone was early resolution by agreement.
“As long as the outcomes are fair and just, we think early resolution is good for everyone,” he said. “For industry, it means retaining customers’ business and goodwill. For consumers, the sooner a matter is resolved the better, because financial disputes can be very stressful.”
Mr Locke said AFCA’s role was not just in resolving disputes but also about working with the financial services industry to help it improve practices. “Our aim is to see fewer complaints, not more,” he said.
A Treasury-led Independent Review last year found AFCA was “performing well in a difficult operating environment and a changing regulatory landscape” and reaffirmed its impartiality and its fairness jurisdiction.
Mr Locke said AFCA was not sitting still and would continue to enhance its service for consumers and firms, using the recommendations from the review to inform projects already under way as well as new initiatives. AFCA introduced a new funding model this year that has been welcomed for its fair, user-pays approach.