On 23 March, the Ombudsman’s oversight of a number of new bodies came into effect. In October last year, the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012 (“the 2012 Act”) was enacted. The purpose of the Act is to extend the powers of the Ombudsman and to bring an additional 140 public bodies, spanning a wide range of services, within the Ombudsman's remit. The 2012 Act is the most substantial expansion of the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman since the establishment of the office.
The extension of the Ombudsman’s remit is a key component of the Government’s Reform Programme which envisages greater transparency and accountability in administrative decision making. In respect of public services, a citizen-centred approach to the provision of public services is a fundamental objective of the Government’s Public Service Reform Plan. As stated by the Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, in her address to the Oireachtas Public Services Oversight & Petitions Committee on 10 October 2012, it is imperative that “the people of this state…are given the means to have decisions made about them by the State independently reviewed.”
The increased number of reviewable agencies within the Ombudsman’s remit clearly advances this objective. These agencies include FÁS, the State Examinations Commission, the Legal Aid Board, the National Treatment Purchase Fund and the National Transport Authority.
The 2012 Act also greatly increases the scope and strength of the Ombudsman’s powers. For instance, whereas in the past the Ombudsman could only operate on receipt of a complaint from an aggrieved member of the public, she may now initiate investigations of her own volition.
Additionally, on foot of an investigation, the Ombudsman can now make general recommendations to any of the reviewable agencies within her remit with regard to remedying, mitigating or altering the adverse effect on eligible persons of actions of the particular kind investigated. The Ombudsman can also impose time limits for public bodies to respond to her recommendations. Therefore, all reviewable agencies, and not merely the agency under review, will now need to pay keen attention to the results and findings of the Ombudsman’s investigations.
Furthermore, the Ombudsman can now apply to the Circuit Court for a compliance order where a person fails to comply with a request for specified information. Undoubtedly, these orders will become effective compliance tools in the Ombudsman’s armoury.
The Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions can also now review the Ombudsman’s reports and highlight instances where investigations may be needed.
Citizens’ rights under the 2012 Act have also been reinforced. Under section 7 of the 2012 Act, reviewable bodies are legally obliged to give reasonable assistance and guidance to members of the public, and to deal with them properly, fairly, impartially and in a timely manner in the administration of certain functions.
The Ombudsman’s wider remit is indicative of the growing trend in administrative law of increasing oversight of public service provision in the public interest, despite the limited resources available to public bodies currently. As highlighted by the Ombudsman in her 2011 Annual Report, although public bodies now operate with limited resources, it is still imperative that her office “strive to make sure that people are treated fairly by the State even when resources are limited….”