Access to the ombudsman also varies from country to country. In some countries, individuals may lodge a complaint directly with the ombudsman’s office. In other countries, complaints may be submitted through an intermediary, such as a local member of parliament.
Complaints made to the ombudsman are usually confidential, and the identity of the complainant is not disclosed without that person’s consent.
Role in Protecting Human Rights
Human Rights protection Institutions such as the office of the Ombudsman offer people an opportunity to have their complaints heard, evaluated and investigated by independent neutrals who have no involvement in the outcome of the investigations, can make a finding on the complaints and offer recommendations to the agency that has violated someone’s rights to remedy the situation and prevent it from happening again.
While any citizen who believes that his or her rights have been violated may submit a complaint to the ombudsman; many countries require that the complainant first exhaust all alternative legal and administrative remedies. There may also be time limits imposed on the filing of complaints. Moreover, while the ombudsman’s authority usually extends to all aspects of public administration, most ombudsman are prevented from considering complaints involving members of the legislature or the judiciary.
The ombudsman is not always restricted to acting on complaints and may be able to begin an investigation on his or her own initiative. As with human rights commissions, self –initiated investigations by ombudsman offices often relate to issues, which the ombudsman may have determined to be of broad public concern, or issues, which affect group rights and are therefore not likely to be the subject of an individual complaint.
In many respects, the powers of the ombudsman are quite similar to those of human rights commissions with competence to receive and investigate complaints. Both are concerned with protecting the rights of individuals and, in principle, neither have the power to make binding decisions. There are nevertheless some differences in the functions of the two bodies, which reveal why some countries establish and simultaneously maintain both types of institutions.
As explained above, the primary function of most ombudsman is to ensure fairness and legality in public administration. In contrast, commissions are more generally concerned with violations of human rights, particularly discrimination. In this respect, human rights commissions will often concern themselves with the action of private bodies and individuals as well as the government.
In general, the principal focus of activity for an ombudsman is individual complaints against public entities or officials. However, distinctions are becoming more and more blurred as ombudsman offices engage in a wider range of activities for the promotion and protection of human rights. Incrasingly, offices of the ombudsman are assuming responsibilities in the area of promoting human rights, particularly through educational activities and the development of information programmes. Thus the office does not only protect human rights but also promotes human rights.
The Ombudsman of the Republic of Sierra Leone
Chapter VIII of the 1991 Constitution of Sierra Leone, Act No. 6 of 1991 makes provision for the office of the Ombudsman.
Section 146(1) Provides:-
Subject to the provisions of this constitution, Parliament shall, not later than twelve months from the commencement of this constitution, or so soon thereafter as parliament may determine, by an Act of Parliament establish the office of Ombudsman.
Section 146(2) further provides:-
The act of Parliament shall define the functions and duties of the Ombudsman, which shall include the investigation of any action taken or omitted to be taken by or on behalf of-
(a) Any department or Ministry of Government
(b) Any statutory corporation or institutions of higher learning or education, set entirely or partly out of public funds;
(c) Any member of the Public Service, bring an action taken in the exercise of the administrative functions of that department, ministry, statutory corporation, institution or person.
Thus the jurisdiction of the ombudsman is quite extensive. In accordance with the Provisions of section 146(1) of the constitution the Sierra Leone Parliament legislated the Ombudsman Act 1997, Act No. 30 of 1997.
Section 2 of this Act deals with the establishment of the office – It provides among other things that the office shall be a public office but shall not form part of the public service.
Section 7 deals with the functions of the Ombudsman- It gives the office the power to investigate a complaint made by any person who claims to have suffered injustice as a result of any mal-administration. It also gives him the owner to take appropriate action to remedy, correct or reverse the act complained of through such means as are fair, proper and effective.
The Deficiencies of the Office of the
To be able to effectively promote and protect human rights the deficiencies in the office of the Ombudsman must be urgently addressed.
The ombudsman in Sierra Leone has often been referred to by some legal Analyst as “a high sounding nothing”. He has Powers to investigate and Recommend but not to take any Action. To a great extent this truism is in other jurisdictions.
Furthermore Section 13 of the Ombudsman Act 1997 provides that when a report is compiled by the Ombudsman in respect of his findings regarding a particular complaint pursuant to Section 7 it can only be acted upon if the Minister of a particular department decides so to do or the President of the Republic as the case may be.
This is a serious limitation especially if the Minister of the said department is the subject of the investigation.
However in the event that the Minister and the President fails to act upon the report of the ombudsman within a reasonable time (ninety days) then the Ombudsman has nothing to do but to go to the House of Parliament so that it can act on the report as stated under Section 14.
In view of the above provisions it is pertinent to note that if the Ombudsman is empowered to act upon any complaint, it will expedite and complement the slow judicial proceedings in Sierra Leone.
I will summit that section 13 and 14 of the Ombudsman Act be amended by parliament so that the Ombudsman’s office can be more effective.
In practical terms the office is beset with a number of obstacles which are generally of two kinds:
1. Problems caused outside the institution
2. And problems encountered inside the institution.
The most significant problems caused within the institution are lack of resources dedicated to it – An inadequate budget, not enough staff, an office that lacks sufficient space and difficulty establishing the institution, its credibility and the respect it requires from the agencies under its jurisdiction.
If the budget is not increased to hire more staff to conduct investigations it will take longer and longer to conduct investigations and report on results.
Once it begins taking too long the institution will lose credibility and start to be the kind of bureaucracy about which it is receiving complaints.
A thorough examination of a complaint requires sufficient time and staff resources to conduct the investigation in a timely manner. Since the institution lacks sufficient staff, it is not able to do the job and earn the respect of the people or government officials and civil servants.
Providing sufficient staff and financial resources are important to the success of the office of the Ombudsman in protecting human rights.
It is important to note that this institution is created in a country with no tradition in the rule of law or observing human rights and before 1997 never had an Ombudsman or credible national human rights protection institution.
As such the staff of the office of the ombudsman needs to be trained by experienced investigators from other countries in the rule of law and specific human rights and who can help create a tradition that will further the protection and promotion of human rights through investigations, that results in recommendations accepted by the agency being investigated. Aside from problems caused by insufficient staff, the lack of equipment and office space by this institution has caused morale problems and made it difficult to track complaints and bring investigations to an end.
Furthermore, many complaints brought to this office are not within the institution’s jurisdiction. It will take time for people to understand the institution’s functions and what types of government act are within the institution’s jurisdiction.
In Conclusion establishing an effective and efficient Ombudsman’s Office in Sierra Leone will put a check to mal-administration and injustice in the public service, as well as check the excesses of public officials, thereby creating a culture of human rights within the public service in Sierra Leone.
By Melron C. Nicol-Wilson Esq
Director-Lawyers Centre for Legal Assistance ( LAWCLA )