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Ask The Ombudsman

New Zealand was the first country outside of Scandinavia to formally appoint an independent person to investigate grievances that individuals had against government departments.

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In 1962 we Kiwis all learnt a Swedish word.  The word was “ombudsman” which translates into English as grievance person.  New Zealand was the first country outside of Scandinavia to formally appoint an independent person to investigate grievances that individuals had against government departments.

If you are unhappy about a decision made by a government department or a local authority you can call on the Ombudsman to inquire into the decision making process and review the decision made. Approaching an Ombudsman is usually regarded as a last resort remedy.  For example, if you think WINZ has made a wrong decision about your superannuation entitlement, you would be expected to use the department’s review and appeal procedures before contacting the Ombudsman.  The Ombudsman is a free service. You fill out a simple form and send it with as much information as possible, together with copies of relevant documents to the Ombudsman’s office. The organization concerned has to disclose all its files and information to the Ombudsman.

Complaints are normally dealt with in a time frame of 40-70 days.  The Ombudsman is often able to help settle disputes informally but can also make formal recommendations to the department concerned.  Although the Ombudsman cannot force a government department to accept the recommendation, such is the mana of the office that recommendations are usually accepted.  The Ombudsman’s office also files a report to Parliament each year, which although not identifying individual complainants does list the type of complaints received and how they were dealt with by the respective organizations.  An under-performing or uncooperative government agency is likely to come in considerable political scrutiny and criticism in Parliament.

These Ombudsmen, who are appointed by the Governor-General upon the recommendation of the House of Representatives are known as Parliamentary Ombudsmen.  They are empowered to deal with complaints about government departments, local government bodies, Education and Health Boards and other public agencies.  Parliamentary Ombudsmen have no jurisdiction over private companies, courts of law or individuals such as, doctors and lawyers.  Ombudsmen cannot deal with complaints about the police who have their own Police Complaints Authority.

The Parliamentary Ombudsmen also have the important task of reviewing decisions when individuals have been refused information they have requested under the Official Information Acts.  More recently they have been given a role under the Protected Disclosures Act 2000.  If you work for a government agency and are intending to go public as a “whistle-blower” because you feel something is wrong, you can contact the Ombudsmen in confidence for assistance and advice on your legal position under the Act.

The Ombudsman concept is now also found outside of government.  The Insurance and Savings Ombudsman and the Banking Ombudsman are the main examples.  The word ombudsman is protected by the Ombudsman Act 1975 and permission to use the name is only granted in special cases where the proposed complaints procedure is truly independent and meets stringent criteria.

The non-government Banking and Insurance Ombudsman schemes have proved very popular with consumers.  It should be remembered however that not all financial institutions or insurance companies belong to these schemes. Again these Ombudsman schemes are intended to be last resort remedies.  You are expected to pursue your complaint as far as you can with the bank or insurance company before using the Ombudsman service.  You should notify your bank or insurance company in writing that you want them to review their decisions as you are intending to go to their Ombudsman. If an internal review does not resolve the issue then an Insurance Company will give you a “letter of deadlock” while a bank will sometimes give you a “letter of final decision.”  In these instances you must lodge your complaints with the respective Ombudsman within two months of receiving the letters.

The Insurance Ombudsman deals with complaints about personal insurance and savings products.  You have to be a policyholder of the company you are complaining about to use the Ombudsman procedure.  The Ombudsman’s decision is not binding on you but is binding on the insurance company, if you accept it.  If you decide not to accept the Ombudsman’s ruling you can still go to court.  The Banking Ombudsman’s situation is fairly similar.  You do not have to accept the ruling but if you do, you can ask the Ombudsman to issue an award that is binding on your bank.  The Banking Ombudsman can make awards of compensation for direct financial loss of up to $150,000.00, in some circumstances, and also award personal compensation up to $4000.00.

Our Parliamentary and Industry Ombudsmen are highly respected in New Zealand.  They are easy to contact and use. Their knowledge, independence and mana mean that they are a most useful alternative dispute resolution to expensive litigation.

Disclaimer: The information contained in this article is of a general and summarised nature only. It should not be used as a substitute for obtaining personal legal advice.

© Terry Carson 2009