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A reprimand to the Bank of Finland and the Financial Supervisory for their telephone advice in violation of the law

A reprimand was issued to the Bank of Finland and the Financial Supervisory Authority by Parliamentary Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen for charging a fee for telephone advice in violation of the law.

An additional fee is charged for calls to the telephone numbers of the exchange, records office and public servants of the Bank of Finland and the Financial Supervisory Authority. Only some of the service numbers are free of charge.

The Bank of Finland and the Financial Supervisory Authority noted in their reports to the Parliamentary Ombudsman that they will change the pricing of incoming calls to ensure that, in the future, the customers will not incur additional charges for calls received and connected to other numbers by their exchanges. This change will be carried out as soon as technically possible and no later than 1 January 2017. Until then an effort will be made to direct the calls to free service numbers.

According to additional information provided by the Bank of Finland in December 2016, however, this is a significant change requiring additional preparation and investigations that will extend into spring 2017. The Financial Supervisory Authority noted in its additional information that it is administratively subordinate to the Bank of Finland, which also provides its telephone services. The Financial Supervisory Authority will thus be obliged to wait until the investigations conducted by the Bank of Finland have been completed.

The Bank of Finland and the Financial Supervisory Authority announced that they are prepared to reimburse on application any additional fees charged to customers for calls received and connected by the exchange until the reform has been completed.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman finds it surprising that as late as 2016, fees were still charged for the telephone services of these two institutions in breach of legislation. After the reform has been implemented, telephone advice provided by them would only be free of charge when the calls are made to certain service numbers and to the exchange. However, fees would continue to be charged for calling the direct numbers of the public servants and, possibly, also other contact numbers. It appears that the announced changes in the telephone services in spring 2017 would still fall short of meeting the requirement of providing free telephone advice.

Numerous decisions on different authorities

The Parliamentary Ombudsman issued his first decisions concerning the requirement to provide free telephone advice as early as in 2005, after some authorities had introduced business numbers subject to additional charges. Since then, the Ombudsman has given similar decisions concerning numerous authorities, most recently in 2010. All these authorities have modified their telephone services to ensure that they are compliant with the law.

In these decisions, the Ombudsman has noted that the law does not require the authorities to provide advice at no cost to the customers. Customers who contact the authorities by telephone for advice can be expected to pay the costs arising from their landline or mobile phone subscriptions when calling an ordinary telephone number. However, the requirement of providing telephone advice free of charge means that customers may not incur costs that exceed the normal call prices for reasons within the authority's control.

Free advice is part of good governance enshrined in the Constitution

Under section 21 of the Constitution, guarantees of good governance shall be laid down by an Act. Under the Administrative Procedure Act, advice shall be provided free of charge. Access to free telephone advice is thus a fundamental right and part of good governance.

In his decisions concerning telephone advice provided by the authorities, the Ombudsman has stressed that while a certain number of some authority may provide advisory services that potentially fall outside the scope of the Administrative Procedure Act, the same number also provides advice that is within the scope of this Act. Consequently, the contact numbers of authorities, customer service numbers or the numbers of public servants whom the customers of the administration may contact by telephone cannot be excluded from the requirement of free service.

The Ombudsman requested the Bank of Finland and the Financial Supervisory Authority to notify him when their telephone advice services are provided free of charge in compliance with the legislation.

The full text of Parliamentary Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen's decisions no 131/4/16 and 1151/2/16 of 29 December 2016 was published on the Parliamentary Ombudsman's website at oikeusasiamies.fi.

Further information is available from Principal Legal Advisor Ulla-Maija Lindström, tel. +358 (0)9 432 3355.