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October 2016 – Investigations

papers piled up

Our investigations team are taking over the Ombudsman’s blog this week to tell you about what they do and to answer the 4 most commonly asked questions about investigations.

Many people who make an application to the Ombudsman asking for an investigation think that the Ombudsman will deal with their matter personally.  Given the large number of applications received, close to 250 so far this year, that simply isn’t possible.  That is why the Ombudsman is supported by us to ensure that all of these matters are dealt with properly.  We are a team of 10 investigators led by our Head of Investigations and we handle all investigations for our office from the point of application right through to the final decision.

When an application for investigation is received by our office it is assigned to one of us.  Our first task is to decide whether we can accept the matter for investigation.  If it is accepted, we then conduct the investigation and reach a decision.  We do this under the delegated authority of the Ombudsman.  That means that the Ombudsman has given us the authority to conduct investigations and make decisions on her behalf, but that she is still ultimately responsible for the work we do. After going through a peer review process all of our decisions are reviewed and signed off by the Head of Investigations and Head of Office – then the Ombudsman herself endorses our findings.

What people most often want to know about us is what training and experience we have to make us effective investigators. All investigators employed by the Office of the Service Complaints Ombudsman are trained to ensure we hold professional qualifications to help us fulfil our duties.  We each obtain the Professional Award in Ombudsman and Complaint Handling through Queen Margaret University.  We also undertake an independently accredited complaint handling or investigation qualification. Some of us also have legal training and qualifications.

Our experience varies but across the team we have investigators who have previously worked in similar roles for other Ombudsman institutions, the police and even the Serious Fraud Office. Our peer review process is an excellent way for us to learn from each other’s previous work experience and further develop as investigators.

The next thing that people often want to know is what they can do to help us investigate effectively.  The most important thing you can do to help us investigate effectively is to be open, honest and provide us with all of the information we have requested in a timely manner. This is just as important whether you are the complainant, a witness or any other interested party.

If you are the complainant you might want to send us everything you have about your complaint.  This doesn’t always help and can slow the process down.  Let the investigator assigned to your case know what documents you have and we will tell you if and when we need them. Too much contact can delay your outcome as much as no contact and both could result in your case being closed.

As we said earlier not every application made is accepted for investigation.  People often want to know why we don’t accept an application for investigation into alleged maladministration in the handling of a Service complaint and/or the substance (merits) of a Service complaint. There are many reasons for this, but there are two main reasons.

The first is that the application may be out of time.  You have 6 weeks from the end of the internal process (including an appeal if it is open to you to make one) to ask the Ombudsman to investigate maladministration or substance.  If you make an application outside of this time we will ask you why it is late.  If you don’t have a good reason for not making the application in time we will decide that it is not Just and Equitable to accept it out of time.

The second is that a further investigation from our office would not result in a different outcome or add anything to the process. When we receive an application one of the first things we do is ask the Service that handled the complaint to provide a number of key documents from the complaint file.  We ask for these documents because we want to see what was investigated and how the investigation was conducted.

When we review the documents we look for indicators of maladministration, or whether there is something further we can do in terms of investigating the substance of the complaint, depending on what you have asked for in your application.  If there is limited suggestion of maladministration or if we feel it has already been remedied or properly acknowledged we are not likely to accept it for investigation. If we feel the investigation into the complaint was properly conducted and a reasonable decision reached, and there is nothing we can add to the process by investigating further we won’t accept the application.

We will always give you a decision letter that clearly sets out what we have done and why we have reached that decision.

Of course not everyone will be happy with the decisions that we make and many people want to know what they can do if they disagree with an investigation outcome.  Because all decisions made by our office are made under delegated authority they are the Ombudsman’s decisions.  This means that they are final and not open to appeal. If you receive a decision from us and believe that a fundamental mistake has been made which has led to an incorrect decision e.g. we didn’t take into account a key document, you can ask for a review of the decision.  Outside of this the only way to challenge a decision made by our office is through Judicial Review. You can find more information about Judicial Review through the Ministry of Justice.

We know that there are probably many more questions that people have about us and what we do.  It isn’t possible to answer everything you might want to know in this blog, but we hope that this makes a good start!

The most important thing we want you to know is that we treat every application seriously and impartially and our independent investigations are conducted to the highest standards.