Ombudsmen Schemes as a means to enhancing Access to Justice
Published 28/02/2019 by Romauld Johnson
A report from the International Bar Association has been released: Ombudsman scheme and effective access to justice: A study of international practices and trends. An overview provided by the UK Administrative Justice Institute examines the roles ombudsman can play in the ADR landscape.
An Ombudsman is an independent and impartial person who has been appointed to look into complaints about companies and organisations and it is often an alternative to resolving complaints in court. The Ombudsman schemes have become a significant feature of legal systems and informal justice processes across the world in recent decades. They are distinctive from the traditional justice system and provides a route that is usually informal, cheap and less time consuming to reach a resolution. Ombudsman offices can address complaints from individuals, as well as act to investigate, review and address individual or systemic violations or maladministration.
While ombudsmen were first established in the public sector as a means of accountability, they now have a huge presence in the private sector. However, there are questions over whether it is appropriate to rely on ombudsman schemes, as opposed to recourse to a traditional justice system. The report highlights that courts supply a resolution that is public and adheres to the rule of law whereas an ombudsman is largely private and does not make strictly legal findings. This view is particularly prominent within the financial sector, where companies and institutions may have gone to great expense to ensure that they have followed the law in its operations. A recent comparative analysis showed that in Australia, the private sector can be dismissive of the ombudsman scheme and has in the past publicly aired its adverse findings of the local banks’ actions which hurt users. There were also further tensions with the sector negotiating with the ombudsman, which was considered uncooperative at times.
The ombudsman schemes are not absolute solutions to all the problems complains. They risk not being taken seriously, are limited in their remedies, and there are considerable ongoing issues with transparency. However, they are nevertheless an easily accessible and less intimidating means of an individual accessing a form of justice. They can help rebuild trust between the individual (public) and the particular sector. For a list of ombudsmen that may be of assistance, click here.