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Watchdog defends 'informal resolution' of complaints over online agencies

Outspoken estate agent Chris Wood has criticised the Advertising Standards Authority for its succession of ‘informally resolved’ judgements on complaints against online estate agencies.

The ASA this week informally resolved a complaint against online agency Yopa - the third time in 14 months that this kind of low-level resolution has been applied to a complaint against the same agency.

Wood, who last month resigned from the National Association of Estate Agents having made a flurry of allegations about the body, yesterday used Twitter to say: “Another ‘informal resolution’ by an organisation that has no statutory teeth and another issue that those who have statutory powers allow to pass with no sanction again, and again, and again.”

Wood copied his tweet to the Twitter accounts of the Department of Communities and Local Government and to Communities Secretary Sajid Javid.

Although some complaints to the ASA about traditional agencies have also been resolved informally - which happens when the authority believes the complaint to be low-level and remedied by the complained organisation agreeing ‘not to do it again’ - the bulk of complaints about agencies filed to the ASA concern online or hybrid operators.

In October a complaint about Purplebricks’ Local Property Experts, filed to the ASA by Wood himself, was one of a number on the subject rejected by the authority. 

A spokesman for the Advertising Standards Authority told Estate Agent Today that the informal resolution method provides a quick and effective way of addressing potential problems under the advertising rules.

The ASA subscribes to Better Regulation Principles, which were developed by government, and which “require us to incorporate proportionality into our regulation and informal resolutions are an important part of how we go about doing so” he says.

“Where an issue is clear cut or it appears to be a minor breach of the rules an advertiser often agrees to change or withdraw their ad without the need to go down a formal route. We will only resolve cases informally where it is reasonable and proportionate to do so. Crucially, the outcome of an informally resolved case is that the ad that prompted a complaint is stopped. That’s a positive result for the complainant” says the authority spokesman.

He says a formal investigation - regarded as more significant than an informal resolution - is launched if an advertiser is unwilling or unable to work with resolve the issue, if the potential problem is serious and suggests “significant consumer detriment” or there is a sector-wide issue that needs addressing.

“While we do not have statutory powers, we are the established means for regulating UK ads (recognised by government, the courts, other regulators and industry) and we have the power to ban ads” he adds.

The most powerful sanction for the ASA is to refer an advertiser to Trading Standards (for non-broadcast advertising) or to Ofcom (for broadcast) for consideration of statutory action.

“It’s rare we have to take that step. Banning ads, which costs businesses time and money as well as reputational damage, is a significant sanction and acts as deterrent to bad practice” the spokesman concludes.

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