An ombudsman is a neutral, independent public official or office tasked with defending the public’s interests and investigating complaints about the actions of public institutions. More than a hundred countries now have some type of ombudsman.
Sweden was one of the first countries to incorporate an ombudsman position into its constitution in 1809. Originally empowered to prosecute public officials and participate in the deliberations of courts and administrative bodies, Sweden’s ombudsman now serves a consultative function. The ombudsman reviews citizen complaints, protects human rights, addresses misconduct in public institutions, and examines whether laws are properly executed. Most countries with an ombudsman follow this model, including Finland, Denmark, Norway, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Portugal, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Israel, and some states in the United States.
Scholars believe the concept of an ombudsman dates back to the Roman Republic. The Plebeian Tribunal was empowered to protect the rights of citizens against abuse of power by public officials. It had authority to intervene in legal matters and override the actions of judges. The Qin Dynasty in China, 225 AD, had a similar institution, the Censorate, which exercised some oversight over imperial officials and reported directly to the emperor.
Public sector ombudsmen serve as defenders of individual and human rights. They can be an independent institution within a government agency or a separate entity. Public ombudsmen receive, review, and investigate complaints concerning governmental officials and institutions. If a complaint is meritorious, the ombudsman presents recommendations for corrective actions. However, ombudsmen do not have enforcement authority.
Private Sector Ombudsman
Some countries have private sector ombudsmen, for example in the financial and insurance industries. Malaysia has an Ombudsman for Financial Services tasked with resolving disputes between consumers and financial service providers. In the United Kingdom, the Motor Ombudsman is responsible for investigating consumer complaints about their vehicles, including for improper repairs.
Some countries have an ombudsman within the judicial system tasked with promoting accountability. Judiciary ombudsmen are not involved with the litigation process. In some countries, the judiciary ombudsman reviews complaints concerning mistreatment by a judge or court staff. In others, it may be tasked with helping unrepresented litigants manage the court process. In the United States, all New Jersey state courts have a court ombudsman to respond to public questions and help ensure good public service.
The United Kingdom Judicial Appointments and Conduct Ombudsman investigates “complaints about how investigating bodies have handled complaints alleging misconduct by judicial office holders … [as well as] the handling of complaints about the judicial appointments process.” In Belgium, the ombudsman for judicial officers fields complaints filed by individuals who claim their rights were violated by a judicial officer.