The European Ombudsman investigates complaints made by individuals and organisations about maladministration by any of the institutions and bodies of the European Community. The most common complaints relate to unnecessary delay, refusal of information, discrimination and abuse of power. The Ombudsman aims to process complaints within strict timeframes, this could mean a grievance being resolved much faster than through the courts, as well as the obvious benefits of avoiding litigation.

The European Ombudsman cannot investigate complaints about national, regional or local authorities, or an issue being looked at by national courts and these are referred back to the appropriate national ombudsman. The established European approach encourages decisions to be made by institutions as close as possible to the person it affects.

When the European Ombudsman tells the relevant institution that he has received a complaint, the institution has an opportunity to resolve the problem. The assessment of the situation is based on a number of factors such as the European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which it considers binding on certain institutions, as well as general codes of good administration. If maladministration is found and the case is not settled in the course of the inquiry, the European Ombudsman tries to broker a solution to the complainant's satisfaction.

If conciliation fails, the European Ombudsman can make a draft recommendation to the institution, calling on it to take the necessary steps to put the situation right. If the institution does not accept his recommendation, a special report will be sent to the European Parliament, as well as making a "critical remark" to the institution itself. The Ombudsman has no powers to order an institution to change a decision, nor can he grant redress by awarding compensation or annulling a decision. Whilst the Ombudsman does not therefore have any real "teeth" in the traditional sense, the results which can be achieved through this softer, more co-operative approach should not be underestimated.