Human rights and discrimination issues in complaints: what is the ombuds’ role?

Earlier this month the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) published guidance on handling complaints about discrimination. The guidance follows a number of critical reports by the IPCC, which found significant failings in the way police forces carried out such investigations and engaged with complainants. It raises an interesting question: To what extent do ombuds and other complaint handlers hold bodies they investigate to account for discriminatory behavior and decision-making?

Fairness is a key concept of the ombuds approach: both fairness of decision-making and fairness of the processes used to handle citizen-consumer ocmplaints. Yet ombuds schemes and other complaint handling bodies in the UK have generally been reluctant to tread into the territory of naming discrimination and human rights breaches in findings on complaints. Part of the reluctance is the concern that any determination of a breach of equalities and human rights legislation must be made by a court. Breaches of human rights can, however, inform findings of maladministration, but as noted by Buck et al in The Ombudsman Enterprise, this innovative use of the law has its dangers, not least the risk of judicial review.

Promoting and protecting human rights is the primary function of National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs), some of whom also have complaint handling roles. A current study of the role of NHRIs in dealing with human rights complaints is exploring how that complaint-handling role fits with the wider strategic function, and to what extent informal processes such as mediation are being used for these. (We were interested to note that the researchers are finding, as we did, that certain ADR and informal processes are ‘amorphous and difficult to isolate’ and that shared meanings and forms of, for example, mediation appear not to exist.) In some countries, the NHRI is also an ombud, but in the UK ombuds are separate organisations; the Council of Europe uses the term ‘national human rights structures’ to refer to those commissions, ombuds and police complaints mechanisms that have a human rights mandate but are not the accredited NHRI.

Last year the Equalities and Human Rights Commission published a guide to human rights in action. The section of the report on regulators, Inspectorates and ombuds (RIOs) includes several case studies, from the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman and the IPCC, illustrating the use of the human rights framework in complaints handling and investigation.

Among those ombuds who have been proactive in identifying these issues in complaints is the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO), which has published a number of reports highlighting the human rights and discrimination elements of many complaints, particularly about vulnerable people in care or hospital (for example, this one on disability discrimination). The former Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has stated that ‘the Ombudsman’s approach includes an overall concept of fairness, a fundamental commitment to the humanity of individuals and their right to equality in treatment and outcomes. Issues of discrimination and equalities underlie many of the complaints which come to the Ombudsman…’.

The PHSO makes clear in its general standards for determining complaints that it will expect a public body to comply with the equalities and human right legislation and will hold them to account:

‘It is not the role of the Ombudsmen to adjudicate on matters of human rights law or to determine whether the law has been breached: those are matters for the courts. The Health Service Ombudsman’s Principles of Good Administration do, however, state that the Principle of ‘Getting it right’ includes acting in accordance with the law and with regard for the rights of those concerned, and taking reasonable decisions based on all relevant considerations….

If the public body is unable to demonstrate that it has had regard for, and taken account of, human rights, the Ombudsmen will take that fact into account when considering whether there has been maladministration and/or service failure.’

The Northern Ireland Ombudsman has been in the forefront if this work and has worked closely with the NI EHCR to develop a manual and training for complaint handlers to help them identify human rights issues in complaints they receive.

The UK Financial Ombudsman Service has published briefings on the need for businesses to comply with the Equality Act, such as this one. One of the issues is, as FOS points out, ‘consumers rarely articulate their complaint as “discrimination” – or invoke the Equality Act. More often than not, they’re simply frustrated at being unable to access the services they want or need to – and feel that the business’s processes are unnecessarily inflexible and impersonal.’

‘If ombudsmen want a broader canvas on which to paint their distinctive contribution human rights is probably the best, perhaps the only, place to turn at present.’ Nick O’Brien

An optimistic view is that ombudsmen in the UK will ‘increasingly contribute to wards the resolution of human rights issues in public administration, both in conducting investigatory work and in the office’s relations with other bodies’ (Buck et al, The Ombudsman Enterprise, 2011). Nick O’Brien, a human rights specialist and ombuds-watcher, has noted the increased consumerism plaguing ombuds schemes and argues that ombuds can mark themselves out among complaint-handling bodies by having a focus on discrimination and human rights issues: ‘If ombudsmen want a broader canvas on which to paint their distinctive contribution human rights is probably the best, perhaps the only, place to turn at present.’

How far do complaint handlers go in identifying discrimination or human rights as issues in complaints? How do ombuds and complaint handlers use the legal framework for discrimination and human rights in their casework and findings? Perhaps these questions need further research.


One Comment on “Human rights and discrimination issues in complaints: what is the ombuds’ role?”

  1. An interesting article but as someone who has been through the system and survived (just) where do you go to when the Ombudsman abuses your human rights?


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