When can respondents to a Service complaint contact the Ombudsman?
Recently there have been a lot of questions about whether respondents to a Service complaint can ask me to investigate their concerns. I thought I should use my blog for this month to clarify the role of my office by outlining when and how respondents to a Service complaint can make an application to my office.
When a Service complaint is made many people other than the person who made the complaint are involved. There are those tasked to handle the complaint, witnesses that may be interviewed as part of any investigation and in many complaints there is a person (or persons) about whom the complaint was made. Every single one of those people may be unhappy with some aspect of the complaints process, but only the person who made the complaint is able to come to my office and ask that I investigate.
Why is this? The simple answer is that the legislation does not allow me to use my powers of investigation for anyone other than a person who made the Service complaint or raised the Service matter. This is because it is their complaint. It is for them to determine if they think there are any issues with the handling of the complaint they would like me to look at. It is then for me to decide whether or not I will investigate. This remains the case even where someone other than the person who made the complaint is affected by the length of time it has taken, or any other aspect of the process.
The only way for a respondent to have access to my office is for them to make a complaint of their own about how they have been treated in the process or the impact the process has had on them. When such a complaint is made, the respondent then becomes a complainant and is able to ask me to use my powers of investigation in relation to the complaint they have made. I cannot be asked to investigate the complaint they were named in originally.
Perhaps it is easier to explain by way of an example. Cpl Jones makes a complaint about how he has been treated by Cpl Smith. The complaint is taking a very long time to resolve and it is having a negative impact on Cpl Smith’s Service life. Cpl Smith phones my office for information and is told that because he is the respondent to the complaint, I cannot accept an application from him requesting an investigation into the alleged undue delay of the handling of the complaint. Cpl Smith then makes his own complaint about the delays in resolving the complaint and the impact it is having on his Service life. Again, his complaint takes a long time to resolve. He contacts his CO to find out what is happening, but things do not improve. He makes an application to my office to request an investigation into the alleged undue delay of the handling of his complaint and I am able to accept this. In order to investigate Cpl Smith’s complaint properly, I may need to ask some questions about the delays in resolving Cpl Jones’ complaint, but only to the extent that it impacts on Cpl Smith’s complaint.
Many people who have contacted my office have stated that this is not fair. They feel that respondents should have a voice in the process and should be able to ask me to investigate delays and other concerns without having to make a complaint of their own. They feel that this is unnecessarily complicated and it adds further delay to the resolution of the original complaint. I understand all of these concerns. However in order for me to do my job properly, fairly and with integrity I need to act within the limits of the legislation and I have no legal power to investigate a matter for anyone other than the person who made the complaint.
This does not mean that I think that respondents should not have a voice in the process. I understand that being named in a complaint can be very difficult for an individual and that where the resolution of that complaint is delayed it can affect a respondent just as much as the person who made the complaint. My sole aim as the Service Complaints Ombudsman for the Armed Forces is to help the Services establish a Service complaints system that is fair for all Service personnel – whether they are making the complaint or are the person the complaint was made about.
I recognise that this issue needs further consideration and I will work towards finding a solution that is fair to both respondents and complainants alike.