Annual Review 2021–22

Independent Assessor

About the Independent Assessor

The Independent Assessor reviews complaints about the standard of service provided by AFCA in resolving complaints. Complainants, representatives and financial firms affected by how AFCA has dealt with a complaint may lodge a complaint with the Independent Assessor. The Independent Assessor does not have the power to review the merits or substance of an AFCA decision.

The Independent Assessor reports on issues affecting AFCA’s complaint handling performance and makes recommendations to AFCA in response to issues arising from service complaints. The Independent Assessor is appointed by, and reports to, the AFCA Board and works in accordance with the Independent Assessor’s Terms of Reference. The Independent Assessor is not part of the day-to-day running of AFCA and does not answer to AFCA’s senior management or Chief Ombudsman.

The role of Independent Assessor is held by Melissa Dwyer.

During the 2021–22 financial year, the Office of the Independent Assessor received 208 complaints about AFCA’s and its predecessor schemes’ handling of complaints.

Nature of complaints received

The top five issues complainants raised were 1:

  1. failure to address key submissions/concerns
  2. bias
  3. poor quality advice/information provided
  4. unreasonable delays in progressing a financial firm complaint
  5. non-response to questions/information requested.

Under clauses 8 and 9 of the Independent Assessor’s Terms of Reference, the Independent Assessor cannot consider the merits of a decision or finding. Therefore, complaints solely about decisions or findings, including determinations and jurisdictional decisions, were ruled outside jurisdiction.

Eight complaints from financial firms were received compared to 13 received in 2020–21. Five of the complaints received from financial firms were outside Terms of Reference, including complaints about case fees and membership fees.

Findings report from the Independent Assessor

A total of 194 complaints were closed during the financial year, with 59 assessments issued.

One hundred and twenty-nine complaints were closed because they were outside terms of reference to consider. Three complaints were withdrawn at the complainant’s request and a further three were closed when the complainant did not respond to an information request or other correspondence.

Complaints were outside the Independent Assessor’s jurisdiction if they were solely about the merits of a decision or finding, or the complaint against the financial firm or a service complaint to AFCA had not been finalised (or submitted).

Complaints falling outside the terms of reference because the original complaint against the financial firm was ongoing, or a service complaint to AFCA had not been made or was ongoing, may be re-submitted if the complainant remains dissatisfied with the service received once the other processes are completed.

Proportion of complaints closed as a result of assessment or outside terms-of-reference ruling




32% (61)

31% (59)

Closed as outside terms of reference/withdrawn/failure to respond

68% (131)

69% (135)

Examples of issues that were substantiated include:

  • information and/or advice provided was of poor quality
  • there were unreasonable delays in progressing a financial firm complaint
  • there were delays in responding to an AFCA service complaint
  • AFCA did not respond to a party’s questions/information requests
  • AFCA did not respond to calls or correspondence.

When a complaint is substantiated, the Independent Assessor may make a recommendation to AFCA’s Chief Ombudsman that AFCA offer an apology, pay compensation for any distress or inconvenience caused by the poor service (non-financial loss) or take other action.

During the 2021–22 financial year, the Independent Assessor recommended AFCA apologise to 29 complainants for service failings and pay a total of $12,000 in non-financial compensation.

In addition, the Independent Assessor recommended AFCA take ‘other action’ in four cases. Other recommended actions included that AFCA consider and respond to unaddressed issues raised by a complainant, that AFCA provide a complainant with a written copy of a preliminary assessment and that a decision maker phone a complainant to further explain a decision. AFCA accepted and actioned all recommendations in full.

Observations and Business Improvement Recommendations

As well as the recommendations made in response to individual complaints, the Independent Assessor may make business improvement recommendations to AFCA under clause 3 of the Independent Assessor Terms of Reference.

These recommendations are based on observations of recurring and/or significant issues and themes.

Themes the Independent Assessor saw in 2021–22:

  • The level of service provided by AFCA is generally high (the Independent Assessor did not substantiate a single issue in 25 of the assessments issued in 2021–22 and, even when an assessment substantiates a complainant’s issues, it will include other issues that are not substantiated).
  • AFCA does very well in handling both straightforward and complex complaints made by complainants with average situations.
  • When a complainant’s situation is not average, which might be anything from a need to communicate via Australia Post to living with mental illness, there is an increased risk of service failings. In some cases, a complainant may contribute to the service failings by their own conduct, including by being uncooperative and/or not engaging with AFCA in good faith. In other cases, AFCA failed to acknowledge the need for a more tailored approach early enough in its complaint handling.
  • Over the past several years, AFCA has made considerable strides in addressing these issues, including by developing and promulgating its Engagement Charter, but there remains further opportunity for improvement.
  • There is a continuing reluctance by decision makers to engage directly with complainants when post-determination issues or questions are first raised
  • There is some confusion, inconsistency and extended timelines in managing reviews of AFCA’s jurisdiction to consider complaints
  • There are some delays and extended timeframes in dealing with complaints, particularly around allocating complaints to case workers and decision makers and obtaining internal specialist advice.

During the year, business improvement recommendations to AFCA by the Independent Assessor included that AFCA:

  • review its jurisdictional review processes with a view to making the process more efficient and effective
  • formulate and document a process for referring potential code breaches to the Code Compliance Committee
  • clarify staff understanding of how to respond to members’ queries regarding fees and/or who they should refer such queries to.

The Independent Assessor reported quarterly to AFCA’s Board. They also liaised with, reported to and/or met with representatives from AFCA and met with Treasury regarding its Independent Review of AFCA.

Business improvement recommendations are also reported to AFCA’s Board, together with AFCA’s responses to them. The Board monitors the implementation of any actions AFCA takes in response to the recommendations.

1 Complainants almost always raised more than one issue.

Case study


A complainant lodged a complaint with the Independent Assessor about how AFCA handled their financial complaint. The complainant said he was not provided with the personal information entitled to him under the Privacy Act, despite repeated requests to AFCA.

The Independent Assessor investigated the service complaint and found there was confusion among AFCA staff about the application of the Privacy Act 1998 (Cth), there were no records maintained of what documentation was released in response to a privacy request, and that AFCA had no formal privacy request process.

Following the investigation, the Independent Assessor made three recommendations to AFCA:

  1. AFCA should engage specialist expertise to review its obligations under the Privacy Act, its privacy processes and supporting material including AFCA Rules, privacy policy and privacy training, particularly regarding individuals’ rights to their personal information
  2. AFCA should ensure its privacy releases include reference to the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC)
  3. AFCA should maintain copies of all information released under the Privacy Act.
Findings and outcomes

In response to the Independent Assessor’s recommendations, AFCA established a privacy working group to update its existing key privacy requirements, created a template letter to be used to respond to access requests, and introduced a process to ensure all information released under the Privacy Act was properly stored.

AFCA also updated it privacy policy, privacy enterprise training, complaint forms and communications with complainants.

In addition to the changes made in response to these specific recommendations, AFCA implemented several other changes to improve privacy-related practices.

These include:

  • engaging all AFCA staff in mandatory privacy training
  • redacting tax file numbers and government related identifiers
  • responding to access requests for information while a complaint is open
  • increasing internal awareness about how complainants’ consent should be managed
  • increasing internal awareness of AFCA as an APP entity, the function of the AFCA Privacy team, and what issues should be referred to AFCA Privacy
  • updating internal policies, guidelines and processes related to privacy, and
  • creating a protected information policy and register to track information provided to AFCA as ‘protected information’. 

Case studies are used to demonstrate AFCA’s approach to an issue and have been simplified for length and clarity.

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