Transforming the role of ombudsmen in the UK

Ombudsman book and hammer

We're helping ombudsmen gain greater powers to resolve public complaints and hold the government and other organisations accountable.

Our research had led to improved performance amongst public service ombudsmen and has helped shape UK policy.

An ombudsman is usually appointed by government or by parliament, but with a significant degree of independence. Their role is to represent the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints or a violation of rights.

Since 2003, Dr Richard Kirkham, from our school, has been investigating the role of ombudsmen within the Administrative Justice system.

The focus of his research is on understanding and enhancing the capacity of the UK Office of the Ombudsman to resolve grievances by promoting good administrative practice and delivering justice to individuals.

Dr Kirkham said: "Ombudsman schemes have an important constitutional role to play in providing a dispute resolution service and highlighting areas of major deficiency in the delivery of services. Examples of the recent input of ombudsman schemes can be found in the areas of special education needs, healthcare and prisons.

Through his research, Dr Kirkham developed a critical theoretical framework for exploring the nature, limits and potential of ombudsmen. He sees them as a vital part of the evolving integrity branch of the constitution, an idea that challenges standard constitutional theory.

Dr Kirkham’s work has helped change the approaches of parliamentary and local government ombudsmen in the UK, with a view to improving their performance. It also shaped debate and policy recommendations on administrative justice remedies within the Law Commission.

Due to his expert knowledge around ombudsmen, Dr Kirkham was commissioned by the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) in the UK, and the Gibraltar Ombudsman to evaluate their ombudsman schemes.

Following his report on UK Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Ombudsman has followed Dr Kirkham's lead in seeking enhanced engagement with parliament, a point accepted by the Parliamentary Public Administration Select Committee.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman has also placed Dr Kirkham's consultation response at the heart of her efforts to obtain a legislative amendment to remove the MP filter - which denies citizens the right to bring a complaint directly to her - from the current scheme.

Dr Kirkham’s Gibraltar evaluation has been presented to the Gibraltar chief minister and separately to senior figures in the Gibraltar government, with a view to introducing legislative reform. His recommendations include: expanding the office’s jurisdiction, increasing legal powers and clarifying key details of the relationship between the ombudsman and the government in Gibraltar.

In his LGO report, Dr Kirkham recommended that the Government should grant greater autonomy to the LGO, and introduce amendments to legislation to facilitate enhanced independence and accountability.

Dr Kirkham said: "Through our work we have identified a series of deficiencies in UK ombudsman legislation, and made recommendations for legislative reform ranging from measures targeted at revamping the technical provisions that distribute work between the ombudsmen and the courts, to the harmonisation of ombudsman schemes through structural reorganisation.

"We have also argued for more standardised and rigorous oversight of the office and explored different approaches by which this can be achieved, including through enhanced interaction with parliament, judicial scrutiny, and improved corporate governance schemes."