Written evidence from Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) (HRO0017)
Introduction to the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman
The Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) was established by the Public Services Ombudsman Act (NI) 2016 (the 2016 Act). The role of NIPSO is to independently and impartially investigate complaints brought by members of the public about public services in Northern Ireland. NIPSO also has the power to conduct investigations without a complaint often referred to as ‘own initiative investigations’ under section 8 of the 2016 Act. The Ombudsman’s investigation service is free to members of the public and plays an important role in both providing access to justice and redress for individuals as well as supporting improvement and learning in public services.
The purpose of the Ombudsman, as provided for by section 1(2) of the 2016 Act is to investigate complaints of alleged maladministration by listed authorities. Schedule 3 to the 2016 Act identifies the relevant listed authorities and includes Government Departments and their agencies, District Councils, Education bodies, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and Housing Associations as well as organisations involved in the delivery of Health and Social Care. In relation to the Health and Social Care sector, the Ombudsman’s jurisdiction includes all six Health and Social Care Trusts, a number of regulatory bodies, the Public Health Agency, GP’s and independent providers of Health and Social Care such as Care Homes and Domiciliary Care providers.
Question One: Should there be a Human Rights Ombudsperson? If so, what powers and resources would the Ombudsperson need to address the challenges people face in enforcing their rights out of court?
1.1 Citizens in Northern Ireland have recourse to redress and justice through a number of routes depending on whether they need advocacy, support, advice or investigation. Members of the public can approach NIPSO, the NI Human Rights Commission, the NI Equality Commission, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, Commissioner for Older People Northern Ireland and the Commission for Victims & Survivors to name some of the key bodies.
1.2 Helping protect and promote human rights is embedded in the ethos and approach of NIPSO. NIPSO itself complies with human rights law and follows the principles of a human rights-based approach which requires upholding and embodying certain values and principles. A number of instruments at the Council of Europe have affirmed the important role of an Ombudsperson as an alternative to the Courts, in protecting human rights.
1.3 In light of the level of comprehensive provision in Northern Ireland (and elsewhere in the rest of the UK), NIPSO’s view is that the establishment of a separate Human Rights Ombudsperson is not the most effective way forward. Rather the focus should be on:
i) strengthening the current system by ensuring existing Ombudsman schemes have the skills and resources to address human rights effectively, and
ii) increasing the accessibility of existing bodies to address any real or perceived barriers experienced by people when trying to enforce their rights.
This would assist people in accessing support with the added benefit of avoiding the further cost and complexity of creating a new Ombudsperson role.
1.4 NIPSO’s new strategic plan has a clear focus on engagement and accessibility . We have a dedicated work programme to raise awareness of the office and action plans to help make NIPSO accessible to everyone who needs to reach us. It is our belief that this programme of work and joint working with other key agencies will be effective in helping people enforce their rights out of court.
2 Question Two: What powers would the Ombudsperson need to ensure they provide an effective remedy, as required by Article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights, for individuals trying to enforce their rights?
3 Question Three: How would the Human Rights Ombudsperson interact with existing mechanisms such as ombudspersons and Commissioners, including in the devolved nations?
3.1 Taking these two questions together we would highlight that introducing a Human Rights Ombudsperson could create a significant duplication of effort and resources within the existing Commissioner and Ombudsman community. There is also the potential for confusion amongst the public who may not be sure which body to bring their complaint to and may feel compelled to bring the same issue to more than one body. NIPSO and other bodies in NI work together and also independently to share learning from our casework with relevant public bodies and elected representatives. Adding another Ombudsperson role with a clear overlap with existing bodies presents a risk of duplication and also confusion with external facing activities.
3.2 Rather than creating a new role which would need to navigate the overlap in powers and remit between the various existing bodies the focus should be on strengthening the existing system. Access to justice must be accessible and easily understandable and needs to reflect the different legal frameworks for human rights across the UK. For example, here in Northern Ireland in Protocol Article 2(2) the UK Government committed to continue to facilitate the work of the NIHRC in upholding human rights following UK withdrawal from the EU.
3.3 It is our view that, rather than establishing a new institution, there should be a requirement that human rights are a core consideration when an existing Ombudsman is making decisions or formulating recommendations on maladministration. The International Ombudsman Institute states Ombudsman Institutions already make an important contribution to the protection and promotion of human rights. In 2016 NIPSO worked with the NI Human Rights Commission to develop a Human Rights Manual. This document sets out how NIPSO ensures that the consideration of human rights is an integral part of the investigation of complaints of maladministration. This work was subsequently adapted by the Equality & Human Rights Commission to create a Human Rights Guide for the Ombudsman Community.
3.4 At this stage in the call for evidence it remains unclear what the relationship of any potential Human Rights Ombudsman would be in relation to the devolved administrations. There is a need to consider that the jurisdiction and role of a potential Human Rights Ombudsman will differ according to each nation in the light of their diverse arrangements for devolved and reserved matters. This would in all likelihood add further complexity and potential confusion for citizens. Should the inquiry progress further this important issue would be a priority for clarification and further consultation.
3.5 In a time of increasingly tight public budgets and a cost of living crisis there is also the issue of reassuring the public that Government funding is providing value for money. Justifying the expense of an additional Ombudsman when a number of bodies already exist would be challenging and likely to lack public support.
4 Question 4: How would the Human Rights Ombudsperson interact with other bodies tasked with upholding human rights, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission?
As already stated we would have concerns that a new Human Rights Ombudsperson would risk duplication of effort and confusion for the public and possibly also public bodies. The existing bodies in Northern Ireland work effectively together and where needed have MOU’s in place to clarify specific roles and remit with the aim of reducing duplication and effort. Given that a number of well-established bodies are already tasked with upholding human rights we would question the need for an additional one.
5 Question 5: Are there other steps that should be taken alongside introducing a Human Rights Ombudsperson to ensure people can effectively enforce their rights out of court?
5.1 NIPSO is strongly in favour of supporting access to free, early redress in non-adversarial and impartial manner. Ombudsman schemes can provide a more restorative, less adversarial approach and are increasingly embedding early resolution and mediation, alongside more traditional investigation approaches. Mediation and early resolution not only deliver a positive outcome for the complainant but can maintain or re-build the relationship between the two parties. Thus providing a longer term benefit than simply resolving the issue of concern.
5.2 Resourcing and skilling existing bodies to more fully deliver on human rights will not only deliver better outcomes for society but maximise the return on investment that has already been made on various Ombudsman schemes. In conclusion, we would reiterate that a focus on strengthening the existing system to deliver on human rights more fully, along with steps to increase accessibility and public understanding will be more effective and provide greater value for money than establishing a new role.
Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman
 Recommendation No. R(85)13 of the Committee of Ministers adopted on 23 September 1985.
 Ombudsman schemes: a human rights guide | Equality and Human Rights Commission (equalityhumanrights.com)