What is an Ombudsman?

What is an Ombudsman?

An ombudsman has jurisdiction to investigate complaints brought forward by people and to help them seek redress if necessary. A parliamentary ombudsman refers to an office of government that has been set up by law to assist with complaints made about a government agency. However, nowadays there are also industry ombudsmen. An industry ombudsman helps consumers if they have a complaint about a private corporation. This is just one way of seeking assistance if you have an issue, but it will usually be a last resort, after all other avenues have been exhausted.

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Parliamentary ombudsman

This is a free service that investigates and reports on government conduct with the aim of increasing government transparency. While an ombudsman has authority from law made in parliament, it is a completely independent office to avoid decision bias. At the federal level, there exists a Commonwealth Ombudsman, while each state and territory will have their own. Which one you approach will depend on if your issue is with a federal or state government agency.

What can the ombudsman help with?

An ombudsman can hear a complaint about a government agency and may also help with appeals of a government agency’s decision. However, ombudsmen cannot overrule any previous administrative (government) decision or provide another remedy like a court can, such as damages. They can only write a recommendation to the responsible agency which can outline possible remedies. While these do not need to be followed, they usually are. That’s because ombudsmen have the power to bring the complaint further up to the responsible Minister or even the Parliament or Prime Minister.

What is the process?

If you are making a complaint, the ombudsman is usually the right place to seek help, but only after you have tried to resolve the issue with the department.

If you are seeking help from the ombudsman to appeal a decision, there is a process in place. It is important to know that this is a last resort. Usually, ombudsmen will only investigate matters if the complainant has first appealed the decision within the agency (internally). If that hasn’t resolved anything, then the complainant should also seek external review in an administrative tribunal. Finally, if the complainant is not happy with that decision, they can seek help from the ombudsman.

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Industry ombudsman

An industry ombudsman (or industry watchdog as they are sometimes called) is usually also a free service. They are independent companies, organisations or government regulators that monitor private corporations. Private companies will usually pay membership fees to be a part of an industry watchdog. The goal is to achieve transparency and better outcomes for consumers, while increasing market competitiveness amongst their rival comapnies. Examples of industry ombudsmen include: the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) and the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA).

What can the ombudsman help with?

After reading a complaint, industry ombudsmen will decide on how to proceed. Unlike their government counterparts, some industry ombudsmen can make binding determinations on companies. They can direct the company to pay a fine or to reverse a decision that adversely affects a consumer.

What is the process?

The process is much the same as ombudsmen that deal with government agencies. To make a complaint about a private company, all other avenues should have been looked at first. This means trying to resolve the dispute through the company first. Depending on the ombudsman that you approach, you will also need to check their specific rules on what complaints they take and what a likely outcome may be. For the complaint to be accepted, the private company you are complaining against may also need to be a member of the ombudsman.

What next?

Remember that before making a complaint to the relevant ombudsman, you must usually exhaust all avenues of internal and external review first. If you are unhappy with the decision of an ombudsman, you can seek legal advice from a lawyer to find out if you can obtain redress in court.

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