The role of the ombudsman is to protect the people against violation of rights, abuse of powers, error, negligence, unfair decisions and maladministration in order to improve public administration and make the government’s actions more open and the government and its servants more accountable to members of the public.
International Ombudsman Institute
The word Ombudsman dates back to 1809 when the Swedish Parliament created a new official known as the Justitie-Ombudsman. Loosely translated, ‘Ombudsman’ means ‘the citizen’s defender’ or ‘representative of the people’.
The traditional concept of an Ombudsman is that of an office that investigates complaints from members of the public about government administration. Its primary role is to make sure that government power is exercised properly by addressing complaints about its misuse.
In Swedish the word ‘ombudsman’ is without gender and can indicate a person of either sex (the Swedish word ‘man’ can mean either ‘man’ or the broader ‘person’).
The concept of establishing a body that promoted government accountability by addressing complaints about government administration has been around since ancient times. Ombudsman-type institutions existed in Ancient Rome (which had the Tribuni Plebis), in China (in the form of the Control Yuan) and in the Muslim world (called the Wafiqi Mohtasib).
In modern times, and particularly since the 1960s, many countries around the world have adopted Ombudsman-type bodies as a central democratic institution. The first English-speaking country to adopt the concept was New Zealand in 1962. Today, more than 90 countries have embraced the Ombudsman model and there are more than 150 Ombudsman-type bodies affiliated to the International Ombudsman Institute.
In Australia we have a Commonwealth Ombudsman for federal government agencies and a Parliamentary Ombudsman in every state and the Northern Territory for state and territory government agencies. A number of industry Ombudsman and council internal Ombudsman offices also exist in each state and territory. The Governor of each state appoints the Ombudsman on the recommendation of the Premier. The Ombudsman can be appointed for a period of seven years and be eligible for reappointment. A joint parliamentary committee usually has the right to veto a proposed appointment of an Ombudsman.
The primary role of the Ombudsman is to be an independent review body. This role includes:
- administrative review – dealing with complaints about the administrative conduct of public sector agencies and officials, and equivalent bodies and people
- compliance review – such as reviewing compliance with the law and good practice, reviewing the handling of and response to allegations and complaints, and reviewing the standards of service provision
- legislative review– reviewing implementation of certain legislation that expands the powers of police and correctional staff.
The role of the Ombudsman is not to replace or oppose decision-making by government or relevant agencies. The Ombudsman exists to assist Australian agencies and people to be aware of their responsibilities to each other, to act reasonably, and to ensure that they comply with the law and best practice in administration. The wide range of functions includes dealing with complaints about the public sector and the provision of community services, reviewing Freedom of Information applications, overseeing the investigation of complaints about police and the handling of allegations relating to child protection against employees of public and private sector agencies within jurisdiction, and reviewing implementation of certain legislation.
The Ombudsman in each state and territory is established under Acts of federal and the relevant state parliaments and the functions are described in various other Acts.
The Ombudsman has wide investigative powers including requiring answers to questions in writing, requiring the production of documents and other evidence, the right to enter and inspect premises owned or used by agencies within jurisdiction, and requiring people to appear and give evidence on oath. It is a criminal offence if a person resists or hinders the Ombudsman, makes false statements or misleads the Ombudsman, refuses to comply with requirements, or takes detrimental action against a person for complaining to the Ombudsman.
If a complaint is found to be justified, a report is given to the agency or service provider concerned and the relevant Minister. A report may recommend that the agency reconsider or change its action or decision, that a law, rule or procedure be changed or that the agency take any other action appropriate in the circumstances, e.g. compensation for financial loss or, in serious cases, initiation of disciplinary or criminal proceedings. An agency or service provider cannot be forced to comply with the recommendations, however they usually do. If they do not, a special report may be made to Parliament.
Each Ombudsman is accountable only to its parliament. This gives independence from the government of the day. Joint parliamentary committees are responsible for monitoring and reviewing the work of the Ombudsman’s Office. These statutory committees are comprised of members of the Legislative Assemblies and the Legislative Councils, and are formed to ensure that the Ombudsman’s Offices are accountable to the legislature and independent from the executive.
Anyone can make a complaint themself, or on behalf of another person or organisation to the Ombudsman. A relative, friend, advocate, solicitor, welfare worker or MP to may complain on another’s behalf. The services are free, and complaints may be written in languages other than English.
Ombudsman Offices in Australia
- Commonwealth Ombudsman (1977)
- New South Wales Ombudsman (1977)
- Victoria Ombudsman (1973)
- Queensland Ombudsman (1974)
- South Australia Ombudsman (1972)
- Western Australia Ombudsman (1971)
- Tasmania Ombudsman (1978)
- Ombudsman for the Northern Territory (1978)
Theme: Countering racism – education, policy, legislation