How to use an ombudsman in Northern Ireland
An ombudsman is someone who has been appointed to investigate complaints about an organisation. The ombudsman is usually a lawyer and investigates from an independent standpoint.
There are a number of ombudsmen:
- the Northern Ireland Ombudsman, who investigates complaints about Northern Ireland Government departments, local councils and other public bodies including registered social landlords, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive, health and social services
- the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman who investigates complaints about national public bodies and certain other public bodies not covered by the Northern Ireland Ombudsman
- the Financial Ombudsman Service
- the European Ombudsman
- the Ombudsman for Estate Agents
- the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland
- the Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
There is no charge for the investigations made by an ombudsman. Any money you spend in making the complaint, for example, travel expenses, should be reclaimed from the office of the relevant ombudsman.
Even where the ombudsman agrees that the complaint is justified, in most cases an organisation cannot be ordered to do anything to compensate you. In addition, the investigation by the ombudsman can take a long time. Complaining to the ombudsman should therefore only be considered as a last resort.
The ombudsman's job is to investigate cases of maladministration. This means the way in which an organisation has dealt with a situation, for example, whether the procedures used by the organisation were fair or reasonable.
The ombudsman will only investigate a case where an individual (or in some cases group of individuals) has suffered personal injustice, hardship or financial loss because of the action, or lack of action of a particular organisation. The complaint must be brought by the person who has suffered this injustice, hardship or loss.
The ombudsman cannot investigate a decision made by an organisation. It can only investigate the way in which a decision was reached. More detailed information on which type of complaint an ombudsman could take up is provided below.
You should seek advice from an experienced advice worker, for example at a Citizens Advice Bureau, or the office of the relevant ombudsman on whether an ombudsman could take on a particular complaint. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
You should complain to the ombudsman only if you have given the relevant organisation an opportunity to comment on the complaint, and resolve any problems. You can find out more about what you must do before complaining to the ombudsman in the information that follows.
The ombudsman will not investigate a case if it is about to go to court or if court proceedings are being considered. In some cases the ombudsman will not investigate cases which could be dealt with by a court or tribunal.
The procedure for starting the investigation by the ombudsman depends on which ombudsman the complaint is being made to. Most of the offices of the ombudsmen provide an application form for making a complaint. It is not, however, necessary to use an application form. You can send a letter containing the following information:
- the name and address of the person making the complaint
- the name and address of the organisation the complaint is being made about
- details of what the complaint is about, that is, what did the organisation do wrong or fail to do
- what personal injustice, financial loss or hardship was suffered
- what the organisation should do to put the situation right
- details of how the complaint has been followed up before you contacted the ombudsman
- date when you first identified the event you are complaining about.
You should also send them copies of any paperwork which is relevant to the complaint.
You can seek help in contacting the ombudsman and starting the complaint procedure from an experienced adviser, for example, at Citizens Advice Bureau. To search for details of your nearest CAB, including those that can give advice by e-mail, click on nearest CAB.
What sort of complaint can the Northern Ireland Ombudsman deal with
The Northern Ireland Ombudsman can take up complaints in Northern Ireland about the way an individual has been treated by a local government department, central government department or other public body. Examples of other public bodies are the Arts Council, district policing partnerships, the Equality Commission, health boards and Invest Northern Ireland.
The Ombudsman is concerned about maladministration by a public body, for example, how procedures are used. Examples of the type of complaint the Ombudsman could deal with are:
- slow and unsatisfactory responses to letters to government departments
- incorrect or misleading information and advice given by government officials
- refusal of government officials to give information
- rudeness, discrimination or unhelpfulness of government officials
- failure to follow reasonable rules in procedures and administration.
The Ombudsman cannot investigate the following types of complaint:
- complaints about nationalised industries
- problems which can usually be taken to court
- complaints about the way legal proceedings are conducted, for example, complaints about the administrative staff of courts, unless the staff acted on the authority of the judge or magistrate
- complaints about the police
- complaints about things which have not caused the person complaining hardship or suffering
- complaints about government policies
- complaints lodged more than twelve months after you became aware you had reason to complain.
The Northern Ireland Ombudsman has two offices, the Assembly Ombudsman and the Commissioner for Complaints.
The Assembly Ombudsman
Complaints to the Assembly Ombudsman must be referred by a Member of the Assembly (MLA). The Assembly Ombudsman investigates complaints against any of the Northern Ireland central government departments and other bodies including the Child Support Agency and the Planning Service.
What sort of complaint can the Assembly Ombudsman deal with
A full list of organisations that the Assembly ombudsman can deal with is available on the Northern Ireland Ombudsman website www.ni-ombudsman.org.uk. The organisations are divided into four categories:
- government departments. This includes organisations such as the Department of Education, the Department for Social Development and the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister
- government agencies. This includes organisations such as the Child Support Agency, the Social Security Agency and the Water Service
- other organisations. This includes organisations such as the Food Safety Promotion Board, the General Register Office and the Registry of Deeds
- tribunals. This includes the Planning Appeals Commission, Industrial and Fair Employment Tribunals and Disability Appeal Tribunals.
What can the Assembly Ombudsman do
If the Ombudsman agrees to look into the case, there will be a private investigation. You may be interviewed at home by someone from the Ombudsman’s office.
If the Ombudsman agrees that the complaint is justified, the government department concerned will be asked to put the problem right. The Ombudsman’s report will be sent to the department, the MLA and the person making the complaint.
The Ombudsman cannot force a government department or other public body to put the problem right, and there is no appeal against the findings. However, where the Ombudsman agrees with the complaint and asks a public body to put the problem right, the public body will usually respond. The Ombudsman could ask for:
- an apology
- repayment of money due, for example, tax or benefit
- compensation, for example, for delays
- improved procedures
- better administrative procedures at the department.
The Commissioner for Complaints
You can make a complaint to the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Complaints yourself. The Commissioner for Complaints investigates public bodies which are not part of central government such as the education and library boards, health boards and local councils.
What sort of complaint can the Commissioner for Complaints deal with
The Commissioner for Complaints can deal with complaints of maladministration in local councils and some other organisations. A full list of the organisations that can be investigated is available on the Northern Ireland Ombudsman website at: www.ni-ombudsman.org.uk. The types of organisations include:
- local councils. The Commissioner for Complaints investigates all the local councils in Northern Ireland
- health and social services. The Commissioner for Complaints can investigate complaints about NHS hospitals or community health services.
Some examples of the type of problems which the ombudsman can investigate are:
- poor service, such as a long wait for treatment or an operation
- failure to provide a disability aid
- dirty wards at a hospital
- unhelpful or inadequate staffing
- the care and treatment provided by a doctor, nurse or other trained professional
- complaints about GPs, dentists, opticians and pharmacists working for the NHS
- refusal to give you information to which you are entitled.
The Commissioner for Complaints cannot investigate the following types of problem:
- complaints which have gone or could go to court or tribunal
- complaints relating to services in a non-NHS hospital or nursing home
(unless paid for by the NHS)
- decisions an NHS Trust or individual providing NHS services has a right to make, even if you do not agree with the decision
- a problem which you have complained about more than twelve months after you first became aware of it. However, there is some flexibility with this in certain situations.
The ombudsman’s office will be able to advise on whether or not the ombudsman can take up a complaint. Before you make a complaint to the ombudsman, the practice, hospital or trust concerned must be given an opportunity to investigate and, if possible, resolve the matter. The Northern Ireland Ombudsman will only deal with complaints that have not been satisfactorily resolved through Local Resolution, or by an Independent Review panel.
For information on the standards of service, treatment and care a patient should expect, see NHS patients' rights.
What housing complaints can the Northern Ireland Ombudsman deal with
The Northern Ireland Ombudsman can deal with complaints about maladministration by registered social landlords such as housing associations and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive. The ombudsman cannot deal with complaints about private landlords. Complaints that the ombudsman can deal with include:
- failure to make repairs in a reasonable time
- mistakenly accusing a tenant of rent arrears and not acknowledging the mistake
- charging you more than other tenants for the same service
- unreasonably refusing to provide a home or a transfer of accommodation.
What housing complaints is the Northern Ireland Ombudsman unable to deal with
The Northern Ireland Ombudsman will not normally deal with complaints which involve:
- the level of rent or service charges
- matters which have gone to court or which the ombudsman decides are better dealt with by a court.
What to do first
You should first go through your landlord’s complaints procedure. Complaints must be made to the ombudsman within twelve months of the end of your landlord’s complaints procedure. However, if the procedure is inadequate, the ombudsman may accept complaints before the procedure is complete. Some landlords have a short deadline for accepting a complaint and if you miss it, the ombudsman might not be able to help.
What can the Northern Ireland Ombudsman do
If the Ombudsman agrees that there are grounds for complaint, they may ask for more information from you and the landlord and try to resolve the complaint informally by letters or phone calls.
If the complaint cannot be resolved at this stage, the ombudsman may suggest one of the following procedures:
- mediation. An independent person will help you reach an agreement which is acceptable to both sides
- arbitration. This is a legal process and the decision can be enforced in a court. The arbitrator's decision is binding on both sides
- investigation. An inquiry establishes the facts and a written report is published with recommendations for action by the landlord.
The address of the Northern Ireland Ombudsman is:
The Northern Ireland Ombudsman
33 Wellington Place
The Northern Ireland Ombudsman postal address is:
Freepost BEL 1478
People in Northern Ireland can complain to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman about issues outside of the Northern Ireland Ombudsman jurisdiction. This includes complaints about HM Revenue and Customs, the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office. Complaints about the health service in Northern Ireland are dealt with by the Northern Ireland Ombudsman, not the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman. The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman can only help if asked to do so by an MP.
How to complain
You should complain first to the government department or other public body concerned, as they must be given an opportunity to look into the problem. You should send a letter setting out the problem to the relevant department. You should always keep copies of any letter sent and any replies received. If the government department or public body does not make a satisfactory response, then consider making a complaint to the ombudsman.
If the complaint is to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman, your complaint will need to be referred by a Member of Parliament (MP). You should write a letter setting out the problem to your MP asking them to refer the case to the ombudsman. You should send the MP all relevant paperwork. The MP may wish to investigate the matter before referring it to the ombudsman and may decide not to pass on your complaint. See under heading How to complain to the ombudsman for information on what the letter should contain.
You can approach the Office of the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman directly for advice on whether the case is one which they could take up.
The addresses is:
The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman
What sort of complaint can the European Ombudsman deal with
The European Ombudsman can investigate maladministration in the activities of the European community institutions and bodies. These bodies include the European Commission, the Council of the European Union and the Court of Justice.
Examples of the problems that can be investigated by the European Ombudsman include administrative delay, refusing to give information, discrimination and abuse of power.
What to do first
Before you can make a complaint to the European Ombudsman, the European institution should be given the opportunity to look into the problem and try to sort it out.
How to complain
There is a time limit for making a complaint. You have two years from the date when you first knew about the problem. The complaint does not need to be referred to the European Ombudsman by a Member of European Parliament (MEP). There is no fee for making a complaint to the European Ombudsman. You should put the complaint in writing. There is a form that you can download from the European Ombudsman website. You can fill it in and send it in by e-mail. However, you do not need to use the form to make your complaint.
The address of the European Ombudsman is:
1, Avenue du President Robert Schuman
F-67001 Strasbourg Cedex
What can the European Ombudsman do
The European Ombudsman will look into the complaint. Complaints are not usually handled confidentially, but if you ask for your complaint to be treated confidentially, this will be respected if at all possible.
The European Ombudsman will try to find a solution through conciliation to put matters right and satisfy the person making the complaint. If the attempt at conciliation fails, the European Ombudsman can make recommendations to the organisation to put the problem right. If the organisation does not accept the ombudsman's recommendations, the ombudsman can make a special report on the matter to the European Parliament.
What can the Financial Ombudsman Service deal with
The Financial Ombudsman Service can deal with consumer complaints about most personal financial matters including:
- financial advice
- banking services
- endowment policies
- personal pension plans
- building society services
The Financial Ombudsman Service is impartial and is free of charge. It can mainly deal with consumer complaints about companies which are authorised by the Financial Services Authority, although it can also deal with some unauthorised companies. You should contact the Financial Ombudsman Service consumer helpline directly to find out if it can deal with your complaint.
How to complain
Before you complain to the Financial Ombudsman Service, you must complain to the company using its formal complaints procedure. If you are not happy with the outcome, a complaint can be made to the Financial Ombudsman Service. There is a time limit for making the complaint. This is six months from when you get a final decision from the company about how it is going to deal with the matter. You can get a complaint form from the Financial Ombudsman Service website or from the consumer helpline. You should contact the Financial Ombudsman Service directly for information on how to make a complaint.
The address of the Financial Ombudsman Service is:
Financial Ombudsman Service
South Quay Plaza
183 Marsh Wall
Consumer helpline: 0800 023 4567 (free for people phoning from a landline) or 0300 123 9123 (free for mobile-phone users who pay a monthly charge for calls to numbers starting 01 or 02) (Mon-Fri 8.00am-6.00pm; Sat 9.00am-1.00pm)
What the Financial Ombudsman can do
The Financial Ombudsman Service will look at the complaint and advise how it could be sorted out. If a satisfactory outcome is not achieved, the Financial Ombudsman Service will start a formal investigation. The final decision given at the end of this investigation is binding on the company. However, if you do not agree with it, you can take the complaint to court.
The Property Ombudsman
The Property Ombudsman can only deal with complaints about estate agents if the agent is a member of the Property Ombudsman Scheme. You can check if your estate agent is a member at www.tpos.co.uk. If your agent is not a member, you can contact the Housing Rights Service for further help.
What complaints can the Property Ombudsman deal with
The Property Ombudsman will investigate complaints about member companies if you have lost money or suffered inconvenience because a company has:
- gone against your legal rights
- treated you unfairly
- been guilty of maladministration (including inefficiency and delay).
What complaints is the Property Ombudsman unable to deal with
The Property Ombudsman will not deal with complaints if:
- the complaint is not against a member company
- the complaint is being or has been dealt with by a court
- the complaint relates to a disagreement about a survey
- the claim is for more than £25,000
- you make the complaint more than six months after the company complained about has made its final offer
- the problem happened more than twelve months before you complained to the company or before the estate agent became a member company of the scheme.
What to do first
You should first use the internal complaints procedure of the company concerned. There is a time limit to make the complaint. This is twelve months from the event about which you are complaining.
If, at the end of this procedure, you are still not satisfied, you can write to the Property Ombudsman giving details of your complaint.
How to complain
You should write to the Property Ombudsman giving full details of the complaint. The address of the Property Ombudsman is:
4 Bridge Street
What can the Ombudsman do
The Property Ombudsman will send the decision to both sides. The ombudsman can grant compensation of up to £25,000. You can accept or reject the decision. If you accept it, legally the estate agent has to accept the decision.
If you decide to reject the ombudsman’s decision, you can decide what other action (including legal action) you may wish to take.
What complaints can the Prisoner Ombudsman deal with
The Prisoner Ombudsman will consider complaints about most aspects of a prisoner’s treatment in prison, including disciplinary hearings. They also deal with complaints by people on remand. The Prisoner Ombudsman can also investigate complaints made by visitors to prison.
The ombudsman can consider whether a decision taken by the Prison Service was correct and whether the proper procedures were followed in making the decision. This includes action taken by prison staff employed by private companies, or by members of the Independent Monitoring board.
The ombudsman is also responsible for investigating the deaths of all prisoners and residents of immigration detention accommodation.
What complaints is the Prisoner Ombudsman unable to deal with
The Prisoner Ombudsman cannot consider complaints about the actions of other agencies, for example, the police, courts or the Immigration Department.
What to do first
Before making a complaint to the Prisoner Ombudsman, you must first have used the internal complaints procedures. If you have not had a satisfactory response to the complaint, or if the Prison Service Headquarters has not replied within six weeks, a complaint can be made to the ombudsman.
How to complain
You should complain to the Prisons Ombudsman within 30 days of receiving a reply from the Prison Service Headquarters, or if you have not received a reply, at any time after the expiry of the six-week time limit. The ombudsman has discretion to investigate complaints made outside the time limit, for example, if you were ill and unable to make the complaint earlier.
You should send your complaint in the form of a letter to the ombudsman. If you are a prisoner, you should send the letter in a sealed envelope marked ‘Prisoners confidential access’ and include your prison number. Help and support can be given by a friend, relative or adviser. The complaint should be sent to:
The Prisoner Ombudsman for Northern Ireland
What the Prisoner Ombudsman will do
The Prisoner Ombudsman will usually get copies of any relevant papers from the Prison Service. The complaint will be treated as confidential as far as is possible. However, in some cases, you and other people concerned in the complaint will be interviewed.
The ombudsman will send the decision and the basis for it in writing to both you and the Prison Service. You will usually receive a reply from the ombudsman within eight weeks of making the complaint. If the investigation takes longer than twelve weeks to complete, you will receive monthly progress reports from the ombudsman.
If the ombudsman upholds your complaint, the ombudsman will recommend action that the Prison Service should take.
The Police Ombudsman provides an independent, impartial police complaints system for the people and police under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 1998.
What does the Police Ombudsman do?
The Police Ombudsman can:
- deal with complaints about how police officers do their job, and look at whether these complaints follow any trends or patterns
- investigate complaints about how the police behave when they are doing their job. Complaints may involve allegations of criminal behaviour by a police officer, or allegations that the police officer broke the police code of conduct
- investigate complaints and decide how to deal with them
- investigate a matter even if a complaint has not been made, if there is reason to think that a police officer may have committed a criminal offence or broken the police code of conduct.
What the Police Ombudsman cannot do
The Police Ombudsman cannot:
- investigate an officer's conduct which has already led to criminal or disciplinary action, unless there is new evidence which was not available at the time of the original investigation
- investigate complaints that are 'out of time'.
How to complain to the Police Ombudsman
A complaint must be made to the Police Ombudsman within one year of the incident concerned. It can be made in one of the following ways:
- calling in at their office (details below). You do not need an appointment
- writing to the Police Ombudsman at the address given below
- getting advice from your local Citizens' Advice Bureau about how to contact the Ombudsman
- calling at the local police station. They will not deal with the complaint, but they will refer it to the Ombudsman as soon as possible
- phoning the Ombudsman (details below).
You can contact the Police Ombudsman at:
New Cathedral Buildings
St Anne's Square
11 Church Street
(opening hours 9am and 5pm, Monday to Friday)
Tel: 028 9082 8600 (0845 6012931 out of hours)
Minicom: 028 9082 8756 (for deaf and hard of hearing users only)
Fax: 028 9082 8659
What the Police Ombudsman will do about your complaint
The Police Ombudsman will arrange to meet you to take details of your complaint. An investigator from the office of the Police Ombudsman will try to arrange this somewhere private and convenient - at their office, the local Citizens' Advice Bureau or some other suitable place. The investigator will then decide how to deal with your complaint and will provide a written report on the decision about the complaint.