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Interview of Sean Hooker
Written by the Letting Agent Today team
Sean Hooker, Head of Redress, PRS

Who are you?

I’m the Head of Redress at the Property Redress Scheme. I previously worked for Legal & General PLC dealing with their high level complaints. I then moved to my|deposits to assist in the setting up and then subsequent running of the scheme’s alternative dispute resolution process to resolve deposit disputes.

What is the Property Redress Scheme (PRS)?

The PRS is one of three government authorised consumer redress (ombudsman) schemes that sales, lettings and property management agents are legally required to join. We launched in the Summer of 2014 in line with the legal requirement for letting and property management agents to join a scheme on 1st October 2014. We now have nearly 4,500 members. In our first year we have dealt with nearly 300 formal complaints and also resolved many more initial enquiries through our call centre and by email.

What type of complaints do you deal with?

We can deal with any complaint made against one our Members but our terms of reference categorise the types of complaints as the following. A breach of the Agent Member’s obligations under the law. Where legal rights have been impinged or breached. Where an Agent Member has not acted in accordance with a Code of Practice it has signed up to, or any internal rules, procedures or statements of practice. Unfair treatment of the complainant by the Member including, but not limited to rudeness or discourtesy, not explaining matters, poor or incompetent service or avoidable delays. Where an Agent Member has not administered a transaction as efficiently as would be expected. The Agent’s actions must have resulted in the complainant suffering a financial loss, or unnecessary aggravation, distress and/or inconvenience.

What type of awards do you make to consumers?

I can may make an award to the consumer ranging from an apology, explanation to reimbursement of financial loss or a compensation sum for inconvenience and distress up to a maximum of £25,000. Any compensation payment will be calculated based on demonstrable loss or costs and will take into account any degree to which the complainant has contributed to the failure or loss suffered.

Who checks whether an Agent has joined a scheme?

The legislation is enforced by local authorities housing or trading standards teams depending on which department in each local area takes responsibility. Although there was a slow start to the enforcement regime we are now regularly contacted by the local authorities to request information about whether agents have joined.

What can happen if an Agent does not join a scheme?   

The local authority can fine letting and property agents £5,000 and sales (estate) agents £1,000. If they are co-ordinated this can be a £6,000 fine in one go. The fines are like parking tickets in that they must be paid are pretty much un-appealable. If the fine is not paid the matter will be escalated to the magistrates court and continuing non-compliance can lead to the Agent being closed down. The local authority get to keep the fines so this gives them added motivation to enforce the legislation. A number of penalty notices have now been issued and the local authorities have set up a network to pass on advice and guidance to each other about how to administer the process.

Is there any other legislation relating to consumer redress schemes for Agents?

Yes, under the new Consumer Rights Act the Agent must also display which redress scheme they have joined in their office and on their website. If they do not do this then again the local authority – this time specifically the trading standards office can fine the Agent another £5,000.  

How does an Agent join the Property Redress Scheme?

We have tried to make the process as easy as possible. We have an online joining process where the Agent can provide all their details to us and pay their annual membership fee – www.theprs.co.uk/propertyagent/joinnow. The Agent can decide which model to join on. We have an entry model which is also known as ‘pay as you go’ – here they pay £95 plus vat per office and then either £60 plus vat or £90 plus vat for every final stage complaint we are required to deal with. We also have an enhanced model which is £199 plus vat but that includes all their complaints subject to a fair usage policy and we also provide access to a 24/7 legal helpline for these members.   

Is there anything else Agents should know?

A number of industry organisations are pushing the government to introduce compulsory client money protection for letting agents. An agent can obtain client money protection by joining a trade body like ARLA, NALS, UKALA or RICS. There is also an organisation called Client Money Protect which is a membership scheme set up to provide small and medium sized agents with client money protection for their customers. They have just re-launched their website at www.clientmoneyprotect.co.uk. I support the introduction of suitable client money protection for the industry as I believe it helps improve standards and provides a safeguard to those using letting agents.

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