Who is an Ombudsman?

(pronounced om-boodz-man)

An ombudsman is a person who represents the interest of the public by investigating complaints about maladministration within the public sector. The ombudsman is appointed by the parliament but holds a significant degree of independence from the government. The term is gender-neutral but may take on different titles, such as citizens’ advocate, parliamentary commissioner, or public defender, in other countries.

Although the term may seem relatively new, the ombudsman institution has been in existence for over 200 years. In 1809 Sweden appointed its first parliamentary ombudsman to safeguard the rights of citizens, by establishing a supervisory agency independent of the executive branch of the government. Some 110 years later, Finland was the second county to establish an office in 1919. The concept spread to Denmark in 1955; Norway in 1962, New Zealand in 1962; and the United Kingdom in 1967.

Other nations quickly recognized the resourcefulness and significance of this politically independent figure in the light of new and emerging democracies. Guyana was the first country in the Caribbean to establish an ombudsman’s office in 1966. Trinidad and Tobago appointed its first ombudsman in 1976, Jamaica in 1978, St. Lucia in 1979, Barbados in 1987, Belize’s 1st Ombudsman took office 1999, and Bermuda in 2005. Antigua adopted the ombudsman through the 1981 constitution of Antigua and Barbuda under Section 66. In 1994, the Ombudsman Act was passed, and the first ombudsman was appointed in 1995.

The Ombudsman must not hold any other office either in the public or private sector or engage in any occupation for payment. The Ombudsman is a watchdog for good governance, democratic principles and the protector of human rights. The Ombudsman should be non-partisan, confidential and the service is free.

The Ombudsman has the power to investigate, mediate and report on matter of maladministration but cannot reverse an administrative action. Some examples of maladministration include: delay, bias, discrimination, failure to give proper advice, discourtesy, harassment, failure to follow the required procedures and a harsh working environment.