This is a blog post in my very occasional “not a lawyer” series, about ways that ordinary people can use basic knowledge of the law to achieve certain things.
It started with a simple enough request: I had a mobile phone contract with EE (trading as T-Mobile), and I wanted to switch to a different company. I contacted them asking them to unlock my handset, so I could use it on another network, and provide me with a PAC code so I could port my number. I paid a £20 fee for the unlock and got a PAC code valid for up to a month.
But EE failed to unlock the phone within the 20 days specified. I didn’t realise that, so I went ahead with porting my number to another network, thinking that my handset was already unlocked. It wasn’t. My new SIM didn’t work and because I’d ported my number, my old T-Mobile SIM wouldn’t work either. So I couldn’t use my phone at all and I ended up having to buy a new handset.
I contacted EE repeatedly, but every call had the same outcome: someone would apologise, then promise that my handset would be unlocked within 48 hours. Then nothing would happen.
You know what they say about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, right? So I stopped phoning them and escalated things to the “formal complaint” route.
My first formal complaint letter asked for a refund of the £20 I’d paid for the unlock that never happened, plus some compensation (I didn’t specify a sum) for the time wasted on pointless phone calls and the fact that I’d had to buy a new handset when I had a perfectly good handset already. I ended by saying that my next step would be to contact Ofcom. (This was a rookie error; everybody thinks that Ofcom is the big adjudicator of telecoms disputes, but in reality it won’t do anything.)
Failure of formal complaint
T-Mobile responded to say they wouldn’t pay me a penny of compensation for the hassle. They wouldn’t even refund the £20 I’d paid for the non-existent phone unlock. They confirmed that they would not negotiate on this. (The phone remained locked.)
Request for deadlock letter
At the start of the process, I would have been happy just getting my £20 back, with maybe another £20 to say sorry. But T-Mobile’s refusal to negotiate made me cross. So I did some sums and added up the costs of the brand-new handset, the time spent on phone calls to EE, the hassle of having to shop for a new handset when I have specific needs (RSI), the inconvenience of using a borrowed phone for weeks and being unable to access work email while travelling, etc. I came up with a ballpark figure of £250.
By now I’d done my homework (with a little help from Nick Burch) and established that the correct route is to go to alternative dispute resolution. For mobile phone issues, the dispute resolution service is CISAS.
I’m still not clear on the exact process for taking a case to CISAS. Web sources suggested that what I needed was a “deadlock letter”, a letter from the mobile phone company effectively saying, “We’ve reached stalemate trying to resolve this between us, so it’s time for the dispute resolution service to step in.” I asked T-Mobile for a deadlock letter. They ignored my letter but I did finally, finally (three months after first requesting it) get the unlock code for my old handset. Of course, by now I didn’t need it. I wrote again saying that if I didn’t get the deadlock letter within 14 days, I would go to dispute resolution anyway. (I had no idea whether or not I could actually do this. The CISAS website seemed to want a reference number from the phone company.)
T-Mobile responded to say: “We do not send deadlock letters, we have an escalation process that you must follow. A case has been opened and you will be contacted in due course.” There was no information about what that escalation process involved, but it suggested to me that the “deadlock letter” is not in fact necessary. In the same letter they offered me £40 in compensation. Too little, too late. I waited to be contacted about the next step in the mysterious “escalation process”.
I waited two months to be contacted before losing patience and ringing T-Mobile to ask what was going on. They told me that my silence after receiving a letter saying “You will be contacted in due course” had been taken as consent to close the case! I asked them to reopen it and send me the case reference number for CISAS.
Three more months later, nothing had happened. I rang T-Mobile again. They apologised and said they would send me a letter confirming that the case had been reopened.
Opening the case with CISAS
After all that waiting, the letter I got from T-Mobile still didn’t actually contain a reference number for us with CISAS. So I made an application through the CISAS website without a reference number. This was the easiest part of the whole process.
By now it was nearly a year since my initial request for a simple handset unlock, so I recalculated the amount of compensation I was asking for and bumped it up to £300. (You could say the extra £50 was compensation for all the work I’d done following up the case since my initial request for compensation, but I like to think of it as a tax on stonewalling.)
Once you’ve opened a case with CISAS, you have five days to send them supporting evidence. That was easy too. I sent copies of all my letters to T-Mobile, plus a receipt for the new handset, plus evidence that I didn’t receive the unlock code until weeks after being forced to buy the new handset. All this was sent by email with the case reference code (provided by CISAS) in the subject heading and body.
CISAS reject my case, I appeal
And then...CISAS rejected my case, on the grounds that I was complaining about “faulty equipment” (I wasn't) and they don't cover complaints about that. I appealed against this (simply by replying to their email). I argued:
The handset itself was not faulty, it's just that I was prevented from using it by T-Mobile's incompetence. They also repeatedly refused to give me a deadlock letter or a reference number for CISAS, and I can only assume that this is because they thought I had a case and they were trying as hard as possible to put me off pursuing it. I would urge you to reconsider your rejection of my case.
I didn’t think they would agree with this line of reasoning, but it was worth a try.
Victory at last
CISAS relented and agreed to accept my case for adjudication. They gave T-Mobile a deadline to respond. Just before that deadline, T-Mobile emailed me to say that they would be settling my claim in full, with no admission of liability. They put a cheque for £300 in the post.