New Zealand Law Society - Access to justice with free and independent dispute resolution services

Access to justice with free and independent dispute resolution services

By Zoe Priestley

New Zealand has a number of dispute resolution services available to consumers. All are independent of any particular interests and provide free services, but consumers can sometimes miss out due to a lack of knowledge of their availability. Lawyers can also be unaware of the options the services provide. They can be a valuable means of assisting clients to resolve an issue which is quick, accessible, and free.

Financial dispute resolution services

Complaints received by financial dispute resolution schemes (DRS) highlight the need for clear and accessible information to improve financial choices. The Banking Ombudsman Scheme, Financial Dispute Resolution Scheme (FDRS), Financial Services Complaints Limited (FSCL), and the Insurance & Financial Services Ombudsman (IFSO) Scheme are here to help. The DRS want more consumers to know they can access their free and independent services.

Together with resolving complaints about financial services (including banks, insurers, lenders, financial advisers and investors), all four DRS provide tailored information and guidance: responding to enquiries, clarifying issues, and connecting consumers with the right support.

Many complaints arise from miscommunication and misunderstanding, including issues with insurance policies and declined claims, unexpected fees or charges, credit card scams, loan or debt recovery action, and unsuitable financial advice. Complaints provide valuable lessons and feedback for industry. By understanding when and how things go wrong, positive changes can be made.

Referring client complaints to DRS

Better access can only be achieved with better awareness, and referring consumers with complaints to a financial DRS is the first step.

All four financial DRS are approved under the Financial Service Providers (Registration and Dispute Resolution) Act 2008, and all financial service providers are required to belong to an approved DRS. Each DRS has the jurisdiction to investigate complaints about financial service providers that are members of their Scheme; a list of members can be found on the respective websites.

FDRS, FSCL and the IFSO Scheme can investigate and resolve complaints where the direct financial loss being claimed is not more than $200,000. The limit for Banking Ombudsman Scheme complaints is $350,000.

Consumers do not need to be represented by a lawyer and have the opportunity to be heard and gain a better understanding of the issues. While DRS decisions are binding on financial service providers, they do not compromise any legal rights for consumers. If the consumer is not happy with the outcome, they can still take legal proceedings in court.

Benefits of dispute resolution schemes

  • Consumers have free access to an independent, transparent, confidential process;
  • The emphasis is on resolving complaints by negotiation, conciliation and mediation where possible, reaching an outcome both parties can accept;
  • Timeliness – generally speaking, the DRS process will be quicker than proceeding to the courts or Disputes Tribunal;
  • Lessons from complaints create positive industry changes, e.g. improvements in communication, relationships, culture and conduct;
  • DRS decisions are binding on providers, but not on consumers. This can give consumers more confidence in the process.

Supporting consumers

COVID-19 has changed the landscape and highlighted the strength of collective action. Access to free and independent support is even more critical in this context. Consumers are being encouraged to talk first to their provider before making decisions to cancel or change financial products.

Financial service providers have demonstrated a commitment to supporting customers experiencing financial hardship and vulnerabilities. A range of options are available, including various forms of payment relief, premium deferrals, mortgage and loan payment deferrals and restructured loans. Customers are also being directed towards assistance from government, budget advisory services and support agencies.

DRS welcome questions, issues and complaints. Supporting consumers to understand their options promotes more informed financial choices and better financial outcomes in the future.

Case Study: Utilities Disputes

Alongside the four financial dispute resolution schemes, another service focuses on resolving consumer disputes involving utilities. Knowing more about Utilities Disputes can be beneficial for lawyers when assisting clients.

Perhaps still better known under its former title of the Office of the Electricity and Gas Complaints Commissioner, the service is keen to improve awareness of what it offers among consumers and other groups such as lawyers. “Utilities Disputes resolves complaints about electricity, gas, water, and broadband installation on shared property. Our service is free, independent, and fair,” says Utilities Disputes Commissioner, Mary Ollivier.


A key theme from last year’s Government Electricity Price Review was to strengthen the consumer voice and reduce energy hardship. Low consumer awareness of Utilities Disputes was raised as a concern, with the Review recommending an industry-funded awareness campaign.

“We can only provide adequate access to our service if people know about us. Our consumer surveys tell us awareness is low. This needs to change, and we’ll keep working with the sector and the community to raise awareness and improve access,” says Ms Ollivier.

“Utilities Disputes rebranded three years ago, expanding its scope from electricity and gas to include disputes about water, and fibre installation on shared property. It also expanded its focus, from complaint resolution, to more broadly encompassing resolution, prevention, and education.

“Raising awareness and strengthening the consumer voice through complaints can result in valuable feedback for industry, and ultimately help prevent future issues.”

What issues can be referred to Utilities Disputes?

Some issues lawyers may be able to refer to Utilities Disputes include:

  • Damage suffered from supply quality, power outages, or surges.
  • Suspicion about the accuracy of bills and meters.
  • Land and network equipment, such as transformers, trees, and power lines.
  • Billing and account information including payment difficulties.
  • Metering and disconnection issues.
  • Disputes about fibre installation in shared driveways.

“We use a constructive, non-adversarial process to resolve disputes – bringing both parties together, listening carefully, and applying conciliatory skills with the aim of reaching an agreement,” Ms Olliver says. “If agreement can’t be reached, I can make a decision as Commissioner. Before that happens, a preliminary recommendation is issued for comment by all the parties.”

“The health and wellbeing of our community is the main priority for us all. Utilities Disputes relies on the goodwill of the sector, lawyers, and community organisations to advise consumers about our service and encourage them to stay connected.”

Zoe Priestley, is a Communications Consultant with Utilities Disputes Ltd and the Insurance & Financial Services Ombudsman Scheme.

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