Content last updated: November 17, 2023
Engaging with an Ombudsman
An ombudsman is an independent, impartial, and free service that investigates and resolves complaints against particular public bodies or organisations. Many organisations have a specific ombudsman appointed to look into complaints.
An ombudsman’s powers depend on the authority given to them by government. Different ombudsman schemes have different powers.
All ombudsmen have the power to investigate and make decisions on complaints. Their decisions could include recommendations to apologise, to change processes or procedures, or to pay compensation for distress or inconvenience.
An ombudsman will usually have the power to compel organisations to provide information and the power to share relevant information with regulators and law enforcement bodies if necessary.
It is important to know that ombudsmen often lack the power to set aside (or quash) the decision that is the subject of the complaint, or to compel a public authority to take or refrain from certain actions.
Ombudsman in Northern Ireland
There is no single ombudsman which deals with complaints against all public authorities. Instead, ombudsman offices investigate specific public bodies and subject matter. Determining which ombudsman to visit with your complaint is a two-stage process. You need to know: (1) which public body you are complaining about and (2) the subject matter of your complaint. Just because an ombudsman can investigate certain kinds of complaints against a particular body does not mean that they can investigate all complaints against that body.
You can consult the Ombudsman Association’s online guide to identify which ombudsman might be able to deal with your complaint. This resource is best used to direct you to the websites of various ombudsman which may be able to investigate your complain. You can then consult those websites to confirm that ombudsman has power over the public body and relevant subject matter.
Can I bring a complaint to the ombudsman?
1. Have I exhausted the internal complaints procedure?
Before you can bring a complaint to an ombudsman, you must make your complaint to the public body about which you are complaining. That public body will have its own complaints process. You can request information about this process or the public body may send it to you in the course of your dealings with them. You must complete every stage of that process before an ombudsman will consider investigating your complaint.
Exceptionally, the ombudsman may investigate a complaint where the complainant has not exhausted the internal complaints procedure where the ombudsman nonetheless considers it appropriate to investigate the complaint. If you are asking the ombudsman to exercise this power, you must explain the reasons for your request in your complaint.
2. Am I within time to bring the complaint to the ombudsman?
You must make a complaint to the ombudsman within 6 months of exhausting the public body’s own complaints procedure. The public body will likely tell you when you have exhausted its internal complaints procedure. Public bodies listed here have a duty to issue a written notice which says that the complainant has exhausted its internal complaints process. This notice must also inform you that, if you are dissatisfied with the outcome, you may refer your complaint to the ombudsman. If you are unsure whether you have completed the internal complaints process, you should contact the public body directly to ask for details about their procedure and whether they will advise you when you have exhausted that procedure.
Where the complaints handling procedure has not been exhausted but the ombudsman has decided that there are circumstances which make it proper to investigate the complaint nonetheless, the complaint must be made to the ombudsman within 12 months of the day on which the person who wants to make the complaint first has notice of the matters alleged in the complaint. Notice is usually explained as the point in time when the person knew of the issue or “reasonably ought to have known” about it. This means, either when you become aware of the issue about which you are complaining or received the information which should have made you aware of the issue.
- For example, the 12-month deadline may be considered to run from the date that you receive the letter communicating the issue that you are complaining about, even if you don’t read it on that day.
If you are considering bringing an application for judicial review, then it may be worth thinking about engaging with the appropriate ombudsman, at least to some extent, before you lodge proceedings. While failing to bring an investigation to the ombudsman is unlikely to prevent an applicant from bringing an application for judicial review, a public body may raise that argument with the court if an applicant has not engaged with the appropriate ombudsman.
It is important to consider the relevant timelines in both processes.
An application for judicial review must be lodged within 3 months of the relevant action or decision. An ombudsman office’s investigation will often take longer than that. However, you can contact the ombudsman’s office with your complaint and advise them that you intend to lodge an application for judicial review. In your letter, indicate the date by which you need to lodge your application for judicial review and ask that they respond to your complaint within 7-10 days. The ombudsman’s office will often be able to give you an answer as to whether it has the authority to investigate your complaint within that timeline. If the ombudsman advises you that they are unable to proceed with your complaint, you can provide the court with this information when you lodge your application for judicial review. While this may not be technically required, it is an additional step that an applicant can take to protect their claim and insulate themselves from a respondent’s potential argument.
Making a Complaint to the Ombudsman
This section outlines the process for making a complaint to the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman because it is the process relevant to the greatest number of public bodies.
The purpose of the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman is to ensure that public bodies provide fair and efficient public services. The Public Services Ombudsman will receive complaints from people who believe that they have sustained an injustice or hardship as a result of maladministration within a public service. The term maladministration does not have a specific legal definition, but generally means poor administration, the wrong application of rules, or an unfair process. Generally, complaints about maladministration will arise from an allegation that a public body providing a public service:
- Treated you unfairly
- Handled your case poorly
- Sent you a decision that affects you which you disagree with
Specific examples of maladministration which may fall under any of these wider categories of complaints include:
- Avoidable delay
- Faulty procedures or failing to follow the correct procedures
- Not telling you about any rights of appeal that you have
- Unfairness, bias, or prejudice
- Giving advice that is misleading or inadequate
- Refusing to answer reasonable questions
- Discourtesy and failure to apologise properly for errors
- Mistakes in handling your complaints
Your complaint to the Ombudsman must include:
- The name of the organisation that you are complaining about
- The incident that you are complaining about
- How that incident has affected your organisation, service user, or client
The easiest way to make a complaint to the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman is to complete their online complaints form.
The Public Services Ombudsman addresses complaints in three steps. In the first step, the Ombudsman determines if it has the authority to investigate the complaint. In the second step, it decides whether it should investigate the complaint. Finally, if it decides to proceed, the Ombudsman will investigate the complaint.
Step 1: Initial Assessment
The Ombudsman will first determine whether it has the authority to investigate your complaint. The Public Services Ombudsman calls this stage the “initial assessment”. At this stage it will only consider whether there is something preventing the Ombudsman from investigating the complaint. For example, the Ombudsman will assess whether it has the power to investigate the public body and subject matter of your complaint, and that the complaint is within time. It will not consider the merits of your complaint during this initial assessment. After the Ombudsman completes its initial assessment, it will issue you a letter advising you of its decision.
Step 2: Assessment
The Ombudsman considers whether it should investigate the complaint. In order to make this decision, the Ombudsman will typically send a summary of your complaint to the public body that is the subject of your complaint. It will ask for that public body’s comments on your complaint and may ask for their proposals on how to settle your complaint. The Ombudsman may identify her own settlement proposals and send them to the public body. An investigating officer may also interview you and anyone else involved in the complaint.
Once the Ombudsman gathers sufficient information, including any response from the public body, it will decide whether it is appropriate to investigate. To make this determination, the Ombudsman will consider whether:
- an investigation is appropriate and necessary in the circumstances
- an investigation by the Ombudsman would directly bring about a solution or adequate remedy
- investigating the issues of the complaint could be of potential benefit to the general public
It is very important that you provide the Ombudsman with evidence supporting your complaint. The Ombudsman will only decide to investigate where it sees issues of substance. Where there is no evidence to substantiate your complaint, the Ombudsman may decide that an investigation is not appropriate.
After assessing your complaint, the Ombudsman will send you a decision on whether it intends to investigate your complaint. If it rejects your complaint, that decision will tell you why. If it decides to investigate your complaint, it will then proceed to a fuller investigation.
A full investigation by the Public Services Ombudsman can take months. It is important to know that the Ombudsman’s decision to investigate does not prevent a public body from taking any action in relation to your complaint or other matter that relates to you and your affairs.
Step 3: Investigation
If the Ombudsman decides to investigate your complaint, the Investigative Team will begin its full investigation. Their role is to establish if:
- the allegations made in the complaint can be substantiated
- there is any maladministration by the relevant public body
The Ombudsman has the discretion to decide how to conduct each investigation. In some instances, an investigation may be entirely in writing, by way of correspondence. In other instances, the Ombudsman may determine that interviewing those involved in the complaint is appropriate.
After completing the investigation, if the Ombudsman finds that you have been treated unfairly or that the organisation has failed to act effectively, he will make a recommendation. The recommendation is directed at the public body, outlining steps that it can take to address your complaint and solve the problem within the institution. The Ombudsman may recommend that the public body apologise to you or that it pay you any money that you lost as a direct result of its decision.
Engaging with an ombudsman might be most appropriate where:
- You want to see systemic change in an institution.
- Your complaint relates to a public body’s practices more so than a specific decision that it made.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Ombudsman Processes
|The process is free||Not focused on the individual complainant|
|Addresses structural problems||Ombudsman determines complainant’s involvement|
|Ombudsman can make recommendations to public bodies||Limited to no power to compel bodies to implement recommendations|