all about ombudsmen

Ombudsmen are useful people when it comes to putting mistakes right. If you complain to an organisation and they don't sort things out then an ombudsman might be able to help. They are the people who are at the top of the complaints ladder and to whom you can turn for help when all else has failed.

There are over 20 ombudsmen in the United Kingdom and Ireland, and they all look into different kinds of complaints. To find out more about the different ombudsmen click here.

What does an ombudsman do?

Ombudsmen are independent, impartial and provide a free service. They investigate complaints that haven't been solved by the organisation complained against. Ombudsmen investigate complaints when something has been handled badly or unfairly, making someone suffer as a result. This is sometimes called maladministration. Examples might include unreasonable delay, rudeness, failure to follow proper procedures, bias, knowingly giving advice which is misleading or inadequate, and refusing to answer reasonable questions.

When an ombudsman investigates a complaint he or she can either uphold (find it in the favour of the person who has complained) or not uphold it (find that the organisation complained about has not behaved wrongly). The ombudsman can usually recommend redress: a sort of compensation for what has gone wrong.

To read some examples of maladministration and redress, click here.


Why are they called ombudsmen?

Ombudsman is a Swedish word and means representative or agent of the people. It is used for both men and women. Sweden had the first ombudsman in 1809 and other countries used the word when they appointed ombudsmen of their own.


Why should I learn about ombudsmen?

It is certainly useful to know about your own rights in case you have a complaint in the future which you want to take to an ombudsman. But the knowledge, activities and information on this website should also help you to develop skills you need for the Citizenship section of the National Curriculum. You can find out how ombudsmen fit into the way parliament and the criminal justice system work, and learn how to express your own complaint or concerns effectively.


Can anyone who looks at complaints be an ombudsman?
No, ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland have their own organisation called the British and Irish Ombudsman Association (OA). In order to be recognised by OA an ombudsman scheme has to meet four conditions.
These are:
Independence from the organisations the ombudsman has the power to investigate. It is very important that ombudsmen are independent. This means that they can look at your complaint without bias;
Effectiveness. This means that an ombudsman's findings should be acted upon and not ignored;
Fairness. This means that the ombudsman does not favour either the complainant or the organisation complained about; and
Public accountability. This is achieved in different ways. Some ombudsmen publish anonymised results of their investigations, either individual reports or summaries in their Annual Reports. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman reports to Parliament on her work.

Can the ombudsman investigate anything I disagree with?

No, ombudsmen have rules about the things that they can investigate. These rules set the framework for what they cannot do; for what they can and cannot investigate and what powers they have after an investigation. Most ombudsmen have been set up by statute (law) but others have been set up voluntarily by the sector that they investigate.


How do I find out more about different types of ombudsmen and their jurisdiction?

The best place to start when looking for information about ombudsmen is the OA website at www.bioa.org.uk. Here you will find links to individual ombudsmen's websites and more general information about ombudsmen and their work. You will also find a list of all the ombudsmen in the UK and Ireland, as well as a number of other organisations which investigate complaints.