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An uptick in player litigation in the UK has prompted fresh calls for the creation of a national gambling ombudsman.

The creation of a gambling ombudsman was included in the UK government’s white paper, published in April 2023.

At the time, the government committed to working with the industry and all relevant stakeholders to create a new independent ombudsman for gambling dispute resolutions.

Dispute resolution providers and the UK Gambling Commission (UKGC) currently register around 2,000 consumer complaints per year.

These most often relate to social responsibility breaches, gambling harm and safer gambling.

“At present, customers seeking personal redress currently have no choice but to pursue potentially costly and uncertain court action,” the UK government’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) had said.

The idea was that the new body would adjudicate complaints relating to social responsibility or gambling harm, where an operator was not able to resolve the case.

The government said the new ombudsman would be up and running within one year.

However, thus far, there has been no significant progress.

An unmet need

Meanwhile, UK dispute resolution service the Independent Betting Adjudication Service (IBAS) said it is “ready to step into the ombudsman role with a robust consumer focused plan, pending the support of key stakeholders and agreement of an appropriate funding model.”

“With decades of experience as a trusted independent adjudicator in the gambling sector, IBAS is uniquely positioned to lend its expertise to establish a robust and independent body,” the organisation said.

IBAS added that it recognised the “various viewpoints” on the creation of the ombudsman, but stressed that “individuals with disputes against gambling operators must have access to fair and impartial dispute resolution – a need currently unmet.”

A growing legal niche

In recent years, law firms have witnessed a significant rise in cases related to problem gambling.

Among them is Ellis Jones Solicitors, which has recouped £6m in gambling losses for clients since the firm’s establishment seven years ago.

During an interview with NEXT.io, partner Paul Kanolik emphasised that many of their cases involve operators allowing vulnerable gamblers to continue gambling, even when it was evident that they were addicted or unable to afford it.

“Most individuals who approach us haven’t filed complaints with the Gambling Commission,” Kanolik explained.

“They know that the UKGC lacks the authority to compel betting operators to reimburse customers.

“While they can investigate and impose sanctions, such as fines, these actions seldom result in customers reclaiming their losses,” he added.

Furthermore, Kanolik noted that alternative dispute resolution providers generally steer clear of handling social responsibility-related complaints.

Consequently, few viable options remain for clients – they can either directly lodge a complaint with the betting operator or initiate legal action through the courts.

“This underscores the need for a structural overhaul. In other industries, like finance, an ombudsman serves as an independent adjudicator, addressing a wide array of complaints.

“I believe the gambling industry could greatly benefit from a similar mechanism. Although discussions about establishing such an ombudsman have circulated, its realisation remains uncertain,” Kanolik remarked.

“Working at pace”

The Betting and Gaming Council (BGC) meanwhile told NEXT.io that it is “working at pace” with the UK government but lacks the authority to independently create or appoint an ombudsman.

A BGC spokesperson stated: “The BGC has repeatedly called for the establishment of a mandatory ombudsman for the regulated sector.

“The creation of an ombudsman will further improve customer redress where complaints are made.”

Complex cases

Industry experts anticipate that the number of player claim cases will grow in the coming years.

Additionally, this issue extends beyond the UK, as Swedish courts contend with comparable cases.

Rasmus Kjaergaard, CEO of Danish responsible gambling software company Mindway AI, meanwhile stressed that “it’s crucial for gambling operators to take proactive steps in protecting both players and themselves from potential disputes.”

“By monitoring patterns of play, frequency of bets, and spending habits, operators can identify signs of problematic behaviour early on and intervene appropriately.

This, he said, not only safeguards players from falling deeper into addiction but also “shields operators from potential legal disputes stemming from issues related to problem gambling.”

Elsewhere, one CEO who recently spoke with NEXT.io stressed the complex nature of these cases, which require operators to delve into the specific circumstances.

“It’s important to recognise that each case is unique, and it’s challenging to predict the outcome of these cases.”

This sets these cases apart from other litigations, such as lawsuits concerning historical losses.

“However, it’s evident that gaming companies regularly face such customer claims and must address them accordingly.”

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