Executive Summary

The Ombudsman for Banking Services (OBS) recognises that some banking customers with whom we engage with can be defined as “vulnerable consumers” due to their personal circumstances. As an alternative dispute resolution body, we have a duty and an obligation to ensure that appropriate mechanisms are in place to address the needs of vulnerable consumers when investigating complaints.

We fully support the growing international and local movement towards the identification of “vulnerable consumers” in the financial sector. We aim to ensure that this category of complainants receive all the care, protection and guidance that they may need.


This Policy addresses the need for the OBS to develop a policy and implement processes to define “vulnerable consumers”, record this information (so that we can better support the needs of this group of banking customers), and collate statistical information to analyse trends.

This Policy therefore aims to:

  • Provide guidance on how we define a vulnerable consumer;
  • Add vulnerable consumer categories and subcategories to our case management system; and
  • Outline the processes and protocols in place to help support vulnerable consumers.

Vulnerable Consumers

A vulnerable consumer is defined as “someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to detriment, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care”.1 The Oxford Dictionary defines “vulnerable” as “in need of special care, or protection because of age, disability, or risk of abuse or neglect” and further defines “disadvantaged” as “in unfavourable circumstances, especially with regard to financial or social opportunities”.

When banks design products and services that do not consider the needs of vulnerable customers, there is a risk that these consumers may suffer harm due to their needs not being met from the start of any engagement. Inequality of bargaining power has become an accepted rationale for the enacting of consumer protection legislation to regulate the financial services industry. The greater emphasis on fair and appropriate outcomes for financial services consumers provides the foundation for this new way of thinking. It is accepted that a “one size fits all” approach is no longer good enough; instead, the individual consumer’s needs must be considered.

Financial service providers are expected to provide consumers with appropriate products and services and a level of care that has due regard to the capabilities of the consumers in question. The level of care that would be deemed appropriate for vulnerable consumers may be different from that which would suffice for other consumers.2 It is crucial that financial firms acknowledge this and implement processes and procedures to cater for the needs of vulnerable consumers, as these customers may face a significant risk of harm.

There is not as yet a definitive list of criteria for determining who is a “vulnerable consumer” as this is still an evolving concept. In compiling our categories of vulnerable consumer, we had due regard to the types of complaints we have dealt with over many years as well as to international precedents.

Categorisation of vulnerable consumers

We have identified the following categories and subcategories of vulnerable consumers:

  • Main Category 1: Age
    • Between 65 and 75
    • Between 75 and 85
    • Older than 85

  • Main Category 2: Communication and Understanding (Literacy)
    • Not financially literate
    • Language barrier (unable to understand business English)

  • Main Category 3: Disability
    • Wheelchair bound
    • Blind
    • Deaf
    • Mentally disabled

  • Main Category 4: Adverse Life Event
    • Divorce
    • Retrenchment
    • Death of a life partner
    • Over-indebted


When a complaint is lodged with the OBS, every attempt is made to establish and record whether the complainant should be identified as a “vulnerable consumer”. If the consumer is deemed to be vulnerable, we will then determine and record the applicable category and subcategory.

Once a consumer has been identified as vulnerable, the necessary degree of care and assistance is then rendered to the consumer by considering his/her personal circumstances. These complaints display a special identifying indicator on the case management system at every stage of the complaints process. We are mindful of specific consumers’ needs when investigating such complaints and this is also communicated to the bank in question.

Examples might include:

  • A complainant in a wheelchair will not be requested to visit a branch without further consideration of the challenges this poses, and possible alternatives being considered.
  • If the complainant is over 85 years of age, every effort is made from inception to expedite resolution of the complaint.
  • In the case of a language barrier, we will try to communicate with that complainant in his/her home language to explain the outcome of our investigation, in addition to addressing written correspondence in English for record purposes. (OBS staff are able to assist complainants in all 11 official languages.)

The OBS has made it a priority to ensure that all staff are properly trained and capable of identifying vulnerable consumers, and that they can engage with them using the required levels of care, attention and respect.

This policy is a living document and will be revisited and updated as we gain more insight and experience and conduct more research into the unique needs of vulnerable consumers – and how we can best meet them as an organisation and as individuals. We are also mindful that the coronavirus pandemic and its (as yet unknown) aftermath may broaden or add to the categories of consumers who should be considered to be vulnerable in this context.