Office of the Ombudsman (New Zealand)
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The Office of the Ombudsman (in Māori: Tari o te Kaitiaki Mana Tangata) was established in 1962 under the Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman) Act 1962. The term "Ombudsman" is Swedish and basically means "grievance person". The primary role of the Ombudsman in New Zealand is to investigate complaints against government agencies. In 1983 the responsibilities were extended to include investigation of agencies that fail to provide information requested in accordance with the Official Information Act. The Ombudsman also has responsibility to protect whistleblowers and investigate the administration of prisons and other places of detention.
The first Ombudsman in New Zealand was Guy Powles who had a previous background as a lawyer, soldier, administrator and diplomat. He held the position of Ombudsman until his retirement in 1977. At the time of his appointment, only three other counties had an Ombudsman - Sweden, Finland and Denmark.
New Zealand's Chief Ombudsman (Nga Kaitiaki Mana Tangata in Māori) is appointed by the Governor-General of New Zealand on recommendation of the House of Representatives. The Chief Ombudsman oversees investigation of complaints against government departments, and reports, with recommendations, to Parliament.
- Dame Beverley Wakem, DNZM CBE - 2008–present
- John Belgrave, DCNZM - 2003–2007
- Sir Brian Elwood, CBE - 1994–2003
- Sir John Robertson, KCMG CBE - 1986–1994
- Lester Castle, CMG - 1984–1986
- Sir George Laking, KCMG - 1977–1984
- Sir Guy Powles, ONZ KBE CMG ED (Official title was simply "Ombudsman" until 1975) - 1962–1977
In addition to the Chief Ombudsman, Professor Ron Paterson was appointed on 4 June 2013 as an Ombudsman.
Powers and duties
Initially, the New Zealand Ombudsman was limited to investigating complaints about central government departments and organisations. In 1968, his jurisdiction was extended to include education and hospital boards. The Ombudsmen Act 1975 expanded the service and extended its reach to include local government agencies as well.
Official Information Act
In 1983, the Official Information Act required government agencies to respond to requests for information (known as OIA requests). The Ombudsman was given the task of investigating complaints against Ministers of the Crown and central government agencies when requested information was not supplied in a timely manner as required by the Act. In 1988 this power was extended to the review of decisions made by local government agencies as well. In 2005, all Crown entities were brought within the Ombudsman's jurisdiction under the Ombudsmen Act and Official Information Act.
The Ombudsman is one of a number of agencies responsible for protecting 'whistleblowers' – employees who report serious wrongdoing in their workplace under the Protected Disclosures Act, which came into force in 2001. The Act applies to both public and private sector workplaces. 'Serious wrongdoing' includes unlawful, corrupt or irregular use of public money or resources; conduct that poses a serious risk to public health, safety, the environment or the maintenance of the law; any criminal offence; and gross negligence or mismanagement by public officials.
The Act states that employers cannot take legal or disciplinary proceedings against an employee who makes a 'protected disclosure', or brings their concerns to an 'appropriate authority'. The Act also states that if an employer takes retaliatory action, the employee can initiate a personal grievance case under the Employment Relations Act. The Human Rights Act may also be available to anyone who is victimised as a result of protected disclosures.
Chief Ombudsman Dame Beverley Wakem says only 10 to 12 people a year ring her office about the Act and even fewer have used it to reveal information. She says the law could have been used during the collapse of finance companies, and that she can't understand why nobody used the legislation to raise concerns about safety practices at the Pike River mine.
Preventing inhumane treatment
The Ombudsman is also part of "National Preventive Mechanisms" which administer The Crimes of Torture Act which establishes New Zealand’s international obligations under the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT). OPCAT was established to ensure a system of regular visits by independent international and national bodies to prisons, police cells and mental health hospitals in order to prevent torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Countries that have signed up to OPCAT allow their performance to be monitored by the United Nations Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
The Ombudsman appoints Prison Investigators to visit prisons and other places of detention in New Zealand and to conduct investigations after complaints. The Ombudsman also conducts "own motion investigations" to investigate significant and systemic issues.
- "History". Office of the Ombudsman. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
- "Past Ombudsmen". Office of the Ombudsman. Retrieved 4 December 2012.
- "Who is the Ombudsman?". Office of the Ombudsman. Retrieved 8 June 2013.
- Protected disclosures/whistle-blowing, Official website of the Ombudsman
- Whistleblower law little known, Radio New Zealand 26 November 2012
- Monitoring places of detention, Official website of the Ombudsman
- Ombudsman's Annual Report 2012, p 6.