Address by Kevin Murphy, former Ombudsman and Information Commissioner, at the launch of the 2007 Annual Report of the Defence Forces Ombudsman.

3 June 2008

When I succeeded the late esteemed Michael Mills as Ombudsman in November, 1994, that Office was the sole statutory office of Ombudsman in the State. There were two private sector Ombudsman schemes in operation at the time – the Banking Ombudsman which Gerry Murphy filled – and still does although in a different environment – and the Insurance Ombudsman which Paulyn Marriman Quinn filled with distinction at a time when some of the inadequacies of that scheme were becoming apparent.

Today there are 7 statutory Ombudsman offices in operation with an 8th on the way, In addition to what some other countries call the National Ombudsman, there are the Financial Services Ombudsman, the Pensions Ombudsman, the Ombudsman for Children, the Commissioner for the Irish Language, the Defence Forces Ombudsman, the Ombudsman Commission for the Garda Siochana with, in all probability a Legal Services Ombudsman to come. There is also of course, the Press Ombudsman and the Press Council which is a private scheme but which will have legal recognition in the Defamation Act.

I like to think that this very significant expansion in the number of statutory Ombudsman Offices reflects the success of the original office. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the great work the late Michael Mills did in setting up that first office and in establishing the principles which should underly all Ombudsman schemes – essentially independence, impartiality and credibility. If an office is to have credibility on the one hand to its complainants and, on the other,to the bodies within jurisdiction, it must be able to deliver redress where it finds redress warranted on the basis of reasoned, objective and well argued investigation reports. Adequate staffing and resources are essential if this is to be achieved and I would urge members of the Dail and Seanad when the various Annual Reports of Ombudsman are laid before them to ensure that this is so and also to take an interest in areas of concern in the public services which are highlighted in those Reports.

Undoubtedly the expansion in Ombudsman offices also reflects the growing recognition in society of the shortcomings – in terms of cost, time and outcomes – of the strictly legal process involving recourse to the Courts in the area of disputes between individual citizens and the apparatus of the State. Alternative dispute resolution and mediation are now buzz words. But we must remember that an Ombudsman is much more than a mediator who, in a completely neutral way, helps parties to settle disputes on terms acceptable to both of them. An Ombudsman must always be aware of the disparity between the ordinary person in the street and large powerful state organisations and must aim for outcomes that are correct and fair to both parties.

It is also interesting that we have been able in recent years to set up Ombudsman offices which not only safeguard these essential principles but which are specially geared to particular issues, groups or sectors whether they be generic issues such as pensions, vulnerable groups such as children or special sectors such as the Garda Siochana, the Defence Forces and, in due course, solicitors and barristers. The Defence Forces Ombudsman is unique in that it is not concerned with complaints from the public about the Defence Forces but with internal complaints from members of the Defence Forces themselves. This reflects the nature of the Force and the fact that its members cannot enjoy all the freedoms which other employees have. I was interested to read in Paulyn’s introduction to her report that finding suitable remedies and redress can sometimes be extremely difficult and that her objective is to develop a framework which will uphold the rights of wronged individuals to redress while having regard to the practicalities of the military environment. I think all Ombudsman offices go through a process of evolution from recommending redress in individual cases to recommending redress for categories of people where systemic maladministration has occurred and, finally, to agreeing changes in procedures and processes which will go a long way to preventing unfairness, discrimination and other forms of maladministration.

I welcome Paulyn’s report and wish her and her office every success in the future.

Photos of Launch