On 25 September 2013, the Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly published her Annual Report for 2012. Ms O'Reilly has left her post as Ombudsman to take up her role as European Ombudsman on 1 October.
The Ombudsman dealt with 3,412 complaints last year. The largest number received involved the Department of Social Protection, followed by local authorities, and the HSE.
Extension of remit of Ombudsman
The Ombudsman highlighted that the most significant event for her office during 2012 was the passing by the Oireachtas of the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012. This Act extended the remit of the Ombudsman to over 180 additional public bodies, from 1 May 2013. As a result, almost all public bodies are subject to independent and impartial oversight by the Ombudsman. See our Client Bulletin of 7 May 2013 for more information.
Section 7 Notices – Failure to Cooperate with the Ombudsman
Section 7 of the Ombudsman Act 1980 (as amended) confers a legal obligation on any person, in possession of information or documents relevant to an investigation, to provide same to the Ombudsman upon request. In addition the Ombudsman can require such a person to attend before her.
The Report notes that in the course of 2012, there were three cases of refusals to provide material which she sought. At the time the section 7 notices were served however, there was no compliance mechanism open to the Ombudsman to force a person who failed to co-operate. This has since been rectified with the enactment of the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012, which provides, in section 10, that the Ombudsman may apply to the Circuit Court in the event of non-compliance by any person with a section 7 notice.
The Ombudsman has produced guidance on the redress which public bodies should offer in circumstances where a person has been wronged by a public body. The Guide states that "the general rule of thumb should be to put the person back into the position he/she would have been in if the public body had acted properly." It notes that compensation may be appropriate in cases of: financial loss; undue delay or withholding of refunds or payments of benefits; loss of a non-monetary benefit or service; loss of an opportunity; or for costs incurred.
On launching the Report, Ms O'Reilly warned that "Parliament must hold the administration to account and insist that bodies take responsibility for their actions, right the wrong that has been done and change their service to avoid recurrence."
Chapter 4 of the Report describes a number of significant cases dealt with by the Ombudsman during 2012, including:
- Receipt of €68,000 by a man after the Department of Social Protection failed to inform him of his entitlement to a Survivor's Contributory Pension after his wife died in November 1998. The Department agreed to backdate the man's claim after an investigation by the Ombudsman; and
- Reimbursement by the HSE for costs incurred by a woman for seeking a second medical opinion, as a result of being incorrectly diagnosed with a serious heart condition.