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April 18, 2011

‘First Contact Interest Group'

The Gibraltar Public Services Ombudsman took part in the 8th meeting of the ‘First Contact’ Interest Group held at the Office of the Local Government Ombudsman (‘LGO’) in Coventry on the 15th April 2011. The Gibraltar Office was represented by our Public Relations Office, Ms Nadine Pardo-Zammit.

There were 24 members present at the meeting including the British &   Irish Ombudsman Secretary, Mr Ian Patterson. The Gibraltar   Ombudsman Office was the only Overseas Office represented at the  meeting. The different jurisdictions represented at the meeting ranged from The Adjudicator’s Office, to the Pensions Ombudsman, and from the LGO to the Parliamentary & Health Service Ombudsman. The Northern Ireland Ombudsman and Scottish Public Service Ombudsman (‘SPSO’) were also represented at the meeting. The Meeting was chaired by Ms Carol Neill, Advise & Outreach Team Leader of the SPSO.

      Local Government Ombudsman, The Oaks

The meeting proved a valuable source of information for the Gibraltar Ombudsman and an important networking tool for the development of the Public Services Ombudsman scheme in Gibraltar. The presentation on the ‘LGO Advice Team’ given by Ms Michelle Cammish, Customer Services Manager of the LGO, was of special interest. It gave us a lot of food for thought. It highlighted the normal process of a complaint and the internal workings of the LGO’s first contact team. The most salient issues to note were:

Premature complaints: are not sent back to the Complainant but are forwarded to the respective Public Body by the LGO team. 

This procedure differs substantially from our current practise in Gibraltar where the Complainant is advised to contact the Public Body themselves.

Letter writing: The LGO First Contact Team Rep will on occasion also take statements over the phone from a complainant who is unable to write and then forward it on to the Public Body after having typed it out or saved the conversation onto a CD.

The Gibraltar office used to, on occasion, help those Complainants who were unable to write the letter themselves. This practice has now been discontinued and the Complainant is advised that the Citizens’ Advice Bureau (housed within the same building) provides this service.

Website: Interesting to note was that the LGO’s complaints more than trebled when they started to receive complaints via their website three years ago.

The Gibraltar Ombudsman is currently revamping its website and it is hoped that the website will be ready to be launched by July 2011. The principal purpose behind the revamping is so us to reach out to those people who have easy access to this mode of contact. The Website will include an on-line complaint form.

Use of Email facility: Contact is always made by the LGO with the Public Service via email as it is considered to be a communication tool that heightens efficiency, reduces costs and helps the environment.What was important to note was that professionalism and formality is still maintained as the Ombudsman’s letter is attached to the email.

Following from this information we have already contacted all Public Services under the Gibraltar Ombudsman’s jurisdiction informing them that (where possible) this will be the new mode of communication used by our office as from the end of May 2011.

  • Appropriate Remedy: Monetary compensation for malpractice is an issue which is brought up by complainants using Ombudsman services in UK. What is important to understand is that compensation is a term used in court proceedings and this is not what the Ombudsman is about but rather assessing what the value of the distress is and about trying to put the complainant back in the position that they were prior to the malpractice. Appropriate remedies in UK can therefore range from asking the Public Service to give an apology or a payout of a sum of money.
The Ombudsman scheme in Gibraltar has never recommended that money be paid out to a complainant as a form of appropriate remedy but apologies have on occasion been requested from the Public Service.
Free Service: The SPSO takes the idea of the Ombudsman being a ‘free service’ to a new level not heard of in the Ombudsman scheme in Gibraltar. In Scotland all calls to the Ombudsman Office is free of charge and Complainants visiting the office in person can ask for their bus/taxi fee to be reimbursed.
The Gibraltar Office had already set in motion a freepost service for all those people wishing to write to the Ombudsman, prior to this meeting; the Ombudsman is now investigating the feasibility of setting up a free-phone service for all those people wishing to phone the Ombudsman Office.

The value of forming part of such meetings is significant for our small office and it is hoped that that we will form part of the next ‘First Contact’ Group meeting to be held in Birmingham in September of this year.