Practical advice on treating potentially vulnerable customers fairly

Practical advice on treating potentially vulnerable customers fairly


Author: Jenny Ogden

A briefing note by the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Money Advice Trust entitled "Lending, debt collection and mental health: ten steps for treating potentially vulnerable customers fairly" was released on 30 April 2014.

This briefing note is different in the way it concentrates on practical examples and suggestions. Too often, advice and guidance fails to bridge the gap between theory and practice. This briefing note offers useful and practical advice, backed up by real life case studies.

There is increased attention in the financial services industry to all types of vulnerability, not just in the area of mental health. This briefing note brings advice in a previous note, which concentrated solely on mental health issues, up to date to encompass other types of vulnerability. The lessons learnt in respect of mental health, the industry approach to it, the processes and procedures in place to engage with individuals with mental health problems translate across the board for all types of vulnerability.

This note also seeks to clarify that work in this area is very much "in progress" and best practice is continually evolving. Whilst there has been progress over the last few years in the way the financial services industry engages with vulnerable adults, there is still a significant amount of work to do.

Whilst all of the guidance given in this note is meritorious in its own right - the need to translate general training and awareness of mental health issues into practice and specific work-related training for staff is an important focus. There is therefore a need to review whether the training is being implemented correctly at grass roots level.

The financial services industry has covered a lot of ground in raising awareness of various vulnerabilities - especially vulnerability arising out of mental health problems - but further action is needed. It is not sufficient to give awareness training only. Customer-facing staff should be given specific role related practical training to enable them to engage appropriately with vulnerable adults.

Too often lessons learnt are not translated into practice. For example, where you are aware an individual may have a reading disability or a mental health problem which impacts on his or her ability to open correspondence, a process which depends solely on getting written responses to letters is not acceptable. Once the lender is on notice that an individual may have difficulties with written correspondence, reasonable adjustments need to be made to cater for this. Do all your policies and procedures allow for this? This does not just include your vulnerable adults policy, but all other policies and procedures as well. Treating vulnerable adults fairly should be embedded in the culture of your organisation and reflected across the board in all of your policies and procedures.

It is not just compliance with regulations that should be considered, it is also compliance with the court rules and protocols. You are required to make reasonable efforts to resolve issues prior to starting legal proceedings - litigation should be a last resort. There are also rules which require you to have made reasonable enquiries, or to provide information prior to commencing proceedings, all of which should be read in light of any specific communication requirements of a vulnerable adult. Failure to take account of specific communication needs could mean you have not complied with the court rule or the spirit of the pre-action protocol.

Even if your policy does cover reasonable adjustments, there is no room for complacency. Do you check regularly that in practice your policies are being implemented? I have come across numerous instances where front line staff have noted vulnerability (usually mental health issues) but have then not taken these into account and have instead continued to follow a standard process. That process usually relies almost entirely on written communication and/or telephone contact, even when the vulnerability concerned indicates an inability to deal with written/telephone communication.
As the briefing note says, general training is not sufficient. Training should cover practical scenarios, specific to the work done by the staff being trained. This type of specific training does take more time to prepare and to give, but it will empower front line staff to appropriately deal with vulnerable individuals. As they understand more about how vulnerabilities can affect work they are doing they are also more likely to notice if a procedure does not take vulnerability into account and raise questions. You could also consider empowering your staff further by giving them sufficient autonomy of decision making to take into account the specific needs of vulnerable adults and where appropriate to deviate from standard procedure.

It is positive that the industry has taken on board the need to train staff and make them aware of various vulnerabilities. It now should ensure the message is getting through and is being implemented practically. This briefing note gives useful practical advice on what is being implemented. It should be used to benchmark what you do and policies and procedures should be reviewed, asking whether they cover what they need to and then cross reference the policy with what is happening on the ground.

Shoosmiths believes appropriate engagement with vulnerable adults is critical to being able to deal with those adults fairly, which is why we agreed to contribute to this briefing note.