Middle man: Paul Bentall, Financial Ombudsman Service

Financial Ombudsman Service general counsel Paul Bentall’s sense of fair play has helped make his organisation respected the world over.

Middle man: Paul Bentall, Financial Ombudsman Service Sitting ;among ;the ­towering ;financial ­houses of Canary Wharf, the Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) occupies ;a ;unique ­position in the world of commerce.

Preferring not to be called a ­regulator, watchdog or trade body, the FOS acts as an independent expert with a government mandate to settle individual complaints between ­consumers and businesses providing financial services.

In its current form, which was cemented in the Financial Services and Markets Act (2000), the FOS holds a “close constitutional ­relationship” with official regulators the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and the Office of Fair Trading (OFT). But it is on the ground with the consumers that it is best ­recognised, receiving more than a million enquires and settling around 100,000 disputes every year.

At the heart of this service is FOS general counsel Paul Bentall, who oversees a team of 10 lawyers, a ­paralegal, an actuary and an ­administrator.

Bentall’s team does not get involved in the front-line issues faced by the rest of the FOS workers, but instead provides support to the ­decision-makers – the adjudicators and ombudsmen. The two-tier ­system sees the ­adjudicator seeking a mediated settlement first, which resolves a high percentage of cases. If that does not work an ombudsman will review the case and make
a ­decision based on a fair and ­reasonable judgement.

“Our role is to resolve disputes between consumers and financial businesses,” explains Bentall, whose team provides a legal backbone to the day-to-day work of the service.

As the scope of financial developments has widened, so too has the FOS’s jurisdiction. To match this, the number of employees at the service has also grown, from 400 in 2002 to more than 1,000.

This increase in work can be put down to a mixture of public ­awareness of financial issues (helped by websites such as moneysaving expert.com, ;the ;Daily ;Mail’s ­Moneymail and the BBC’s Watchdog programme) and from the expansion of the mortgage market over the past few years.

The ;number ;of ;mortgage ­endowment disputes has jumped from 25,000 a year in 2002 to 100,000 today. Around 40 per cent of the work undertaken by the FOS has to do with pensions and a quarter is on the ­controversial ‘payment ­protection insurance’.

“Any in-house lawyer is advising clients and for us the adherence to those principles is the same,” says Bentall. “People who work here are very friendly.

They have different ­drivers behind what they’re doing compared with those faced by ­private practice lawyers. We seek to resolve disputes between consumers and businesses, and the people who work in this organisation think, quite ­rightly, that they’re doing something worthwhile.”

The service receives ­numerous thank you letters which, as Bentall puts it, “allow us to see the tangible ­consequences” and add to job ­satisfaction.

Bentall admits that there is “an ­element of levelling the playing field”, but stops short of trying to become a consumer champion, preferring instead to remain in a diplomatic position above the fray.

“We can never look at a complaint from a consumer without the ­consumer having tried the ­company complaints procedure first,” he says. “We run an independent dispute ­resolution scheme.”

The FOS lawyers occasionally seek legal opinions and the team has ­longstanding relationships with 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square and Blackstone Chambers, whom it taps up for ­litigation advice.

One of the most important jobs for the FOS team is to keep workers informed about legal policy. For this reason it runs a legal surgery for internal staff to give advice, ­supporting a database of decisions on the FOS intranet and mentoring ­programmes.

The UK’s FOS is considered a leader in its field. It is the largest ombudsman service in the world and often provides advice to other ­services. The UK’s courts also take heed, often taking into account the ombudsman service’s approach to judgments.

Bentall sees himself and his team of lawyers as ambassadors for the service, with the aim of developing a good relationship with the ­Government, businesses, private practice lawyers and ­consumers.

Not an easy task – and not one that many people would envy in the hard ­economic months ahead. But for Bentall and his team, it is business
as usual.

Name: Paul Bentall
Organisation: Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS)
Position: General counsel
Industry: Ombudsman service
Reporting to: Corporate director David Thomas
Turnover: £54m
Number of employees: ­Approximately 1,000
Total legal capability:11
Main advisers: DLA Piper, 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, Blackstone Chambers

Paul Bentall’s CV

1978: Law degree, Leeds Metropolitan ­University
1988: Law Society (finals)
Work history:
1980-82: Trainee, Conway Kremer & Co
1982-92: Private practice (various)
1992-2002: Deputy solicitor and head of ­litigation, Axa Equity and Law Life ­Assurance Society
2002-present: General counsel, FOS