What can the Ombudsman investigate?
The Ombudsman can investigate complaints about most public services in Northern Ireland, including public health service providers, councils, Northern Ireland government departments and agencies, social housing landlords, schools, universities and colleges of further and higher education. The public service providers that we can investigate are listed in Schedule 3 to the Public Services Ombudsman Act (Northern Ireland) 2016 (the 2016 Act). Click here for a copy of the 2016 Act.
There are other organisations that look at complaints about the police, the prison service, private companies, utility providers (gas, electricity and phone providers), banks and other services. Click here for information on these organisations.
The Ombudsman can consider complaints from people who believe that they have sustained an injustice or hardship as a result of maladministration by a public service provider. The term ‘maladministration’ is not legally defined but it is generally taken to mean poor administration or the wrong application of rules. Some things that the Ombudsman may regard as maladministration include:
- avoidable delay
- faulty procedures or failing to follow the correct procedures
- not telling you about any rights of appeal you have
- unfairness, bias or prejudice
- giving advice that is misleading or inadequate
- refusing to answer reasonable questions
- discourtesy and failure to apologise properly for errors
- mistakes in handling your complaints
How does the Ombudsman decide which complaints to investigate?
We will consider all complaints to determine whether or not they should be investigated, provided we are not prevented legally from doing so. An initial assessment of your complaint will be made to decide if we have the authority to investigate. We will inform you of our decision in writing.
If we have the legal authority to investigate your complaint, we will then decide if we should investigate it. In most cases this will involve a summary of your complaint being sent to the organisation you’re complaining about, asking for their comments and relevant documentation. We may also ask the organisation about any proposals it may have to settle the complaint at this stage.
When we have gathered enough information we will decide whether it is appropriate to investigate, whether we could achieve a solution or adequate remedy by investigating or whether there is a potential benefit to the general public by investigating the complaint. We will write to you with our decision.
If the Ombudsman has decided to investigate, that does not require an organisation to halt any action they may be taking in relation to the matters under investigation, nor stop them dealing with any other aspect of your affairs.
If we decide to investigate, your complaint will be passed to an Investigation Team to establish if the allegations made in the complaint can be substantiated and if there is any maladministration by the organisation you complained about. We will inform you of the outcome of the investigation in a letter or report.
How we investigate
Details of how we investigate your complaint are here.
Publishing our findings
We publish our investigation and case assessment findings to highlight what we do, and to help public bodies to be accountable and to learn from their failings. These findings could be within full investigation reports or as case summaries. They are included on our website and may be shared via our social media channels. The media sometimes report on our decisions. We may also include a short summary of a case in our Annual Reports. We do not name complainants in any of our reports or findings.
Why we may not accept your complaint
We deal with complaints about public services providers. We would generally not investigate your complaint about public service providers if:
- it has been made more than six months since the complaint was dealt with by the public body
- you are simply unhappy with government policy or the content of legislation
- you could take your case to a tribunal
- your case is best decided in court
- your complaint is a matter you are taking to, or intend to take, to court. Cases of alleged medical negligence or claims for compensation cannot be accepted for investigation as these are matters for courts to decide
- the Ombudsman believes the action or decision you are complaining about was in fact reasonable
- it is a complaint about access to health and social care information and the application of the Data Protection Act or the Freedom of Information Act. These matters are for the Information Commissioner, whose contact details can be found here
- it is about a contractual dispute between health and social care organisations and their providers and suppliers.
- it is about private health care.
- a number of the decisions taken by government and public service providers are within the discretion of the individual body, i.e. the decision is one which depends on the judgement of decision makers rather than, for example, on satisfying any stated conditions
We could only investigate a discretionary decision if there is evidence that there has been maladministration in the way the decision is made.
If you are not sure whether we can investigate your complaint, do not hesitate to contact us.