Financial Exclusion, Poor Insurer Practices and Consumer Protection Project

OVERVIEW

General insurance encompasses three products — building, home contents and motor vehicle insurance — that are considered essential to financial inclusion in Australia. These products allow consumers to accumulate important assets while knowing that they are protected against loss or damage from fire, flooding or theft. General insurance also includes more controversial products such as add-on insurance and extended warranties.

This project is Australia’s first large-scale empirical study examining financial exclusion and lack of access to general insurance, as well as poor insurer practices in selling insurance and handling claims. Through surveys, focus groups and interviews, the project also aims to evaluate the effectiveness of the legal protections for consumers of general insurance.

GRANT INFORMATION

Full project title: Consumer Issues in General Insurance: Financial Exclusion, Poor Insurer Practices and Consumer Protection

Type of grant: Australian Research Council Discovery Grant (DP180100771)

Funds received: $358,916

RESEARCHERS

Associate Professor Paul Ali (Chief Investigator)
Paul Ali is an Associate Professor at the Melbourne Law School. For further information, please refer to Paul's profile on Our Staff webpage.

Professor Ian Ramsay (Chief Investigator)
Ian Ramsay is the Harold Ford Professor of Commercial Law at the Melbourne Law School, where he is also Director of the Centre for Corporate Law. For further information, please refer to Ian's profile on Our Staff webpage.

Evgenia Bourova (Research Fellow)
Evgenia Bourova is a Research Fellow at the Melbourne Law School. For further information, please refer to Evgenia's profile on Our Staff webpage.

AIMS AND OBJECTIVES

General insurance has an important role in contemporary Australia, particularly in the context of responding to natural disasters such as floods, storms and bushfires.

However, a national survey has shown that around 19% of Australians do not have access to building, home contents or motor vehicle insurance. A lack of access to these products often goes hand in hand with other factors associated with socio-economic disadvantage, such as living on a low income, renting, and being a recent migrant or refugee from a non-English speaking background.

There is also evidence that a broad range of poor insurer practices are putting Australians at risk of purchasing policies that fail to protect them in case of loss or damage to their most important assets. These practices include:

  • The sale of add-on insurance products to consumers without their knowledge or consent, or in circumstances where the product would be effectively useless to the consumer.
  • The failure to adequately disclose important exclusions that render a product unsuitable for the consumer, or that result in unfair outcomes.
  • Poor practices in claims handling, including long delays and invasive investigation processes that prompt some consumers to withdraw their claims altogether.

This project will use large-scale surveys, interviews and focus groups to fill a significant gap in scholars’ and policymakers’ understandings of these issues.

The project has seven principal aims:

  • To investigate how Australian consumers make decisions about general insurance, including the decision not to take out, or to take out inadequate, general insurance.
  • To identify the major social and economic factors contributing to noninsurance and underinsurance for Australians at all levels of income.
  • To examine the extent to which these factors are different for consumers in demographic groups that experience higher rates of financial exclusion, such as people on low incomes; young people; recent migrants and refugees from a non-English speaking background; and consumers living in rural or regional areas, including those that have recently been affected by bushfires, floods and other disasters.
  • To document the incidence and impacts of poor insurer practices in selling general insurance products and handling claims.
  • To investigate how consumers, insurers and regulators negotiate, comply with and enforce the legal protections that are available for consumers of general insurance products in Australia (particularly those contained in the Insurance Contracts Act 1984 (Cth) and the Insurance Council of Australia’s General Insurance Code of Practice (2014)).
  • To critically evaluate the effectiveness of these legal protections for consumers affected by poor insurer practices.
  • To develop options for legislative and policy reform to improve the effectiveness of these legal protections and maximise access to general insurance, particularly for socio-economically disadvantaged groups.

STATUS OF THE PROJECT

The project commenced in 2018. The project is currently in its first stage, which involves a review of the Australian and international literature on consumer issues in general insurance; and an analysis of the legal protections that are available for consumers of general insurance products in Australia and overseas.

In 2019, on the basis of the findings of the literature review, the research team will design survey, focus group and interview questions, and obtain ethics approval for the empirical study.

PUBLICATIONS

All publications from the project will be made available on this web page.

OTHER REFERENCES

Financial exclusion, poor insurer practices and other issues affecting consumers of general insurance have been the subject of significant media attention in recent years.

In 2011, 2014 and 2016–17, these issues were addressed by a series of government reviews and inquiries. In 2015, the Insurance Council of Australia’s Effective Disclosure Taskforce undertook an investigation on product disclosure for general insurance. In 2018, the hearings of the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry covered issues including the mis-selling of add-on insurance, and lengthy delays in the handling of claims by consumers whose homes had been damaged by storms, floods and other disasters.

The following are some key sources on consumer issues in general insurance:

Financial exclusion and lack of access to general insurance

Add-on insurance

Claims handling and insurance investigations