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Problems with the
Local Government Ombudsman



When officers of my local council allowed a planning application that destroyed any privacy in my home I took a complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman. Although I did eventually obtain a decision of mal-administration the experience convinced me that substantial change is needed in the Ombudsman system.

The neighbour's new windows overlooking our property

Local Government Ombudsmen are Un-popular

Nor am I alone – the latest survey of those using the Ombudsman's services showed that “overall almost 3 in 4 complainants are dissatisfied with the outcome of their complaint including half of the small number who obtained a decision of mal administration causing injustice” (quote from the Ombudsman's own website http://www.lgo.org.uk/pdf/csmorirep.pdf). The level of dissatisfaction had apparently increased between the two surveys reported on the website and my experience suggests it won't have improved since then.

What Went Wrong?

Why was my experience so unsatisfactory? Any visitor to my home looked at the building next door and said “that shouldn't' have been allowed”. But the Ombudsman can not query the merits of planning decisions, only the process by which they were taken. In my case the initial investigation by the Ombudsman's staff suggested the process had been properly carried out and they proposed to discontinue the investigation.

What I Did

I knew nothing about planning law but with the aid of the internet I began to research the decisions taken by other councils, decisions taken by councillors in my council and the decisions in planning cases taken by the European Court of Human Rights.

I obtained some information from planning aid http://www.rtpi.org.uk/planning-advice/pa-paid.html. I complained to the Ombudsman himself that I was dissatisfied with the quality of his staff's investigation. I also supplied a lot of evidence that the decision taken was out of line with decisions taken in other authorities – where the application would not have been permitted – and with similar decisions by members of my council. The investigation continued and the Ombudsman found errors of procedure that led to a decision in my favour. Unfortunately for me the compensation recommended covered less than a third of the cost of measures I needed to take to restore some privacy. The Ombudsman's decision was not legally enforceable – but the council did decide to pay, probably because they feared legal action if they didn't.

Why was I able to obtain one of the “small number” of findings of “mal administration causing injustice”? First I was persistent. I wouldn't accept the initial decision from the Ombudsman's staff. Secondly I had access to the internet, could research case law and probably had a sound case in law – not necessarily for the reasons the Ombudsman gave in finding mal administration. Thirdly my problem was of a type many people could relate to so it would have attracted public sympathy. If the Ombudsman didn't help and it had become public he would have looked totally useless.

Winning Is Unusual

Why are there so few findings of mal administration.? Well Councils sometimes admit they were wrong, probably because they fear legal action if they don't. In 2002/3 in 32% of all complaints which were not premature or out of jurisdiction complainants obtained remedies as a result of coming to the Ombudsman. ( http://www.lgo.org.uk/origins.htm) However the vast majority of these were local settlements. Omitting cases where there is a local settlement the Ombudsman finds mal administration. in less than 2% of cases.

What's Going Wrong?

Are there really so many complaints that are not justified? Well obviously the complainants don't think so. What complainants don't generally realise – I certainly didn't – is how heavily the odds are stacked against them! Appointments to the office of Local Government Ombudsman are made by the Queen on the recommendation of the Secretary of State. In effect the Secretary of State makes the appointments, & he/she makes them after consultation with senior officers of the LGA (the Local Government Association). Based in Westminster, close to Whitehall, the LGA is in fact a lobbying organisation representing local government (quote from their website). In disputes concerning charges of mal administration. the LGOs act as judges between local authorities (the accused) and the complainants (the plaintiffs). The net effect of the present system is that the opinion of those representing the accused is canvassed in the selection of their judges. Two of the three English LGOs are former chief executives in local government.

I have now joined ombudsmanwatch (http://www.ombudsmanwatch.org) - an organisation formed by those who have had bad experience of the Ombudsman to campaign for change. We'd welcome your help.

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