A disabled activist has won a three-year battle with his bank over its refusal to allow him to communicate by email and provide him with a direct telephone contact number as reasonable adjustments.
The Financial Ombudsman ruled that the Co-operative Bank had failed in its duties under the Equality Act, and awarded Adam Lotun £800 compensation.
He had repeatedly asked over more than three years for the bank to make reasonable adjustments to take account of his hearing impairment, autism and memory problems.
As well as turning down Lotun’s request for a way to communicate with the bank by email, it failed to provide a direct telephone number for him and other disabled people to contact staff who were trained to deal with customers with access needs.
On several occasions, Lotun was stranded away from home without any money because his card had been blocked without his knowledge, as a result of the high level of PayPal transactions on his account.
The ombudsman found that he had been unable to unblock the card because he could not stay on hold on the phone for long periods.
On one occasion, Lotun had to wheel himself five miles from a retail park and didn’t arrive home until quarter to one in the morning after his card was rejected at a supermarket checkout and he was left without any money for a taxi.
The ombudsman said that if he had had a direct contact to call, “all of these occasions would’ve been avoided” because he could have called to get his card unblocked “with ease”.
The ombudsman also told Lotun that the bank had told him he could use its text relay system instead of an email, but that “if the time had been taken to understand your needs it would’ve become clear that this isn’t suitable”.
The ombudsman concluded: “Overall, I don’t think the adjustments you’ve asked for are unreasonable – namely to be able to communicate with Co-op via e-mail [and] to have a direct telephone contact for emergency situations only.
“The former has been rejected by Co-op on several occasions on the basis that they didn’t have a secure e-mail facility.
“I don’t think that this was a good enough reason and an attempt should’ve been made to explore this more fully. And I can’t see that Co-op ever proposed suitable alternatives.”
The bank has now agreed to set up a secure email address for him, and has provided a telephone number for a team set up to deal with “vulnerable” customers.
The ombudsman concluded that Lotun had been caused “unnecessary distress and inconvenience by Co-op’s failure to put your reasonable adjustments into place sooner”, although this appeared to be the result of the bank’s “limited resources” rather than discrimination.
The ombudsman said that “a period of three or four years of having to constantly ask for adjustments that weren’t actually that demanding is far too long a period of time.
“I also think that if the reasonable adjustments had been put into place in good time you would’ve been spared a lot of distress and inconvenience on several occasions.”
A spokesman for the bank said it accepted the ombudsman’s decision.
He said: “Since 2013, we have made significant progress in rebuilding the bank, and part of this process has been to completely review how we deal with vulnerable customers, leading to the creation of a vulnerable customer team in late 2016.”
He said the bank had introduced company-wide “customer vulnerability awareness training” for its staff, “front-line training in the identification and engagement of vulnerable customers”, and enhanced training for the new “specialist customer vulnerability support teams”, as well as an advice line for its staff.
As a result of a new partnership with Citizens Advice Manchester, a full-time advisor from the charity has been appointed to the bank to support customers with “multiple issues” who need support with such areas as housing, benefits and access to social support.
The spokesman said: “We also provide appropriate customers with a single point of contact within our central vulnerability teams via a freephone number, via mail or in some instances a secure/encrypted e-mail platform.
“We have made significant progress in improving our support for vulnerable customers since this matter was first raised in 2014 and we apologise to Mr Lotun for any inconvenience caused from his ongoing dealings with the bank.”
Lotun, who has been a Co-op customer for more than 20 years, said it had been a “long and hard-fought battle” to secure the reasonable adjustments he needed.
He said: “The Co-op have now been forced to recognise that they have consistently treated disabled customers negatively and that they have also been forced to recognise their actions and to also create and implement a specialist team to provide the best services possible for disabled customers.
“In my view, a bank that promotes itself as a ‘ethical bank’ should not have to be challenged for so long in this way for ‘ethical standards’ to be put into place.”