The announcement that the government will be setting up a permanent internal grievances board for public officers was met with a degree of concern by the Ombudsman, a spokesman for the office confirmed.
While Ombudsman Anthony Mifsud‘s stand is that there is “no objection in principle to the setting up of internal complaints mechanisms to rectify perceived injustices”, the office said it was evaluating the matter.
“The concerns previously expressed by the Ombudsman remain,” a spokesman told The Shift, referring to the 2016 Ombudsplan which outlined the possible negative impact such boards could have on citizen’s rights.
An OPM circular last month (24/2017) said the internal grievances unit set up in 2014 to investigate alleged injustices against public officers prior to that date, would now become permanent.
The employing Ministry or Government department would be responsible for providing “accurate and timely information requested to complete a request or grievance, according to a manual referred to in the circular.
The government had clashed with Ombudsman in 2014 over who should hear complaints commissioned by army officers. Former Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia, removed over shooting involving his driver, had insisted the Ombudsman should not investigate complaints by members of the Armed Forces of Malta.
One of the primary concerns listed in the 2016 Ombudsplan was the risk posed by a process that puts the complainant at the mercy of those responsible for the injustice.
The report had also stressed the need for internal grievances boards to be transparent, and to operate according to clear and well defined rules that were applicable to all. Without this recommendation in place, these boards could themselves be a cause of injustice, the Ombudsman had said.
Ombudsman Anthony Mifsud insisted he would retain the discretion to investigate any complaints, at any stage.
“Though the Ombudsman remains an office of last resort he has at law the discretion to investigate any complaints, at any stage. This is especially so, if he has reason to conclude that the internal complaint mechanism is not an effective and just one,” the spokesman said.
The Ombudsman’s concerns on how internal boards have handled past investigations are outlined in the report. The office received complaints that cast doubt on procedures; whether they were impartial, transparent and ensured a level playing field. There was also a lack of clarity on remedial procedures.
The government said the initiative will provide “a one stop shop” for public officers for “any query or difficulty related to their employment”. The grievances board is to provide a contact point where officers can report complaints. The related Ministry or Department then has 30 days to abide by the Board’s decision.