An Insight Into the History and Evolution of Ombudsman

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History of Ombudsman

The world has been facing political evils such as corruption and maladministration which has had a huge impact on the social, political, and economic conditions of every country. In order to redress grievances and remove corruption, the citizens have to rely and depend upon the bureaucracy which itself is responsible for maladministration. On account of this paradoxical situation, it is extremely difficult for the common man to seek justice. It is witnessed that in developing nations the problem of corruption and maladministration is more acute.

The transformation of the Police State into a welfare state has resulted in an overwhelming expansion of the State’s activities. In the past, States were only concerned with the maintenance of law and order whereas in modern society States are also concerned with the welfare of its citizens. The growth of the welfare State had made new protection for bureaucratic mistakes and misuse of power. The need for the establishment of machinery which can redress the grievance of people against the administration was felt.

Over the past few decades, countries have adopted different devices and mechanisms in order to impose administrative accountability on the public servant. But these devices and mechanisms were proved incapable of tackling corruption and maladministration. Thus, there arose a need for providing an institution that could effectively deal with corruption and maladministration and to which the citizens may approach without any expenses or formality. In the search for a device to battle corruption and maladministration, the mechanism of the Scandinavian Ombudsman came into existence.

Origin of Ombudsman

Sweden is considered to be the native land of the institution of Ombudsman. The King of Sweden, Charles, during his exile in Turkey closely observed the working of Dewan-iMazalim. On restoration, he ordered the establishment of a similar institution in Sweden. In Sweden, the office was institutionalized in the year 1809 with the title of Justitieombudsman. ‘Ombudsman’ is a Swedish term that has been used for centuries to elucidate a person who represents or protects the interests of the public at large. The word was originally obtained from the medieval Germanic tribes where it was applied to a third party whose task was to collect fines from remorseful culprit families and give them to the aggrieved families of victims.

The word has been taken directly from the Swedish old Norse word – ‘umbodhsmadr’.  In Sweden, the office of ombudsman was established by the Parliament to assist it in its working with the Executive and the Judiciary. It may be considered that the Swedish Parliament was unable to exercise its oversight on the activities of other branches of government. In order to carry out its role as representative of the people efficiently, the Swedish Parliament felt the need for an officer who could actively deal with complaints made by the citizens about action being taken by the Executive and the Judiciary. Furthermore, the lack of Ministerial responsibility and the existence of the judiciary modelled closely on a traditional executive style of decision-maker led to the establishment of the ombudsman office.

Meaning and Nature of Ombudsman

Ombudsman is a Scandinavian term. Which means an officer or commissioner. He is a public officer who functions independently and non-patiently and his duty is to supervise the administration. He deals with complaints or specific allegations from the citizens against administrative injustice and maladministration. In its special sense, it refers to a commissioner who has the duty of investigating and reporting to the Parliament on complaints of the citizens against the Government and make an attempt to resolve them, usually through recommendations or mediation.

The ombudsman plays an extremely essential role in tackling the issue of corruption. The object of the institution of Ombudsman is to safeguard the citizens against the misuse of the powers by the administration. Ombudsman is an institution to protect individuals from the injustice done to them by any of the three main organs of the government. It is independent of the three organs of the state. Through the ombudsman, the citizen can get prompt relief or remedy to his grievances.

Spread of Ombudsman Concept

The office of the ombudsman for more than 100 years, remained confined to Sweden. Its contagion effect came out in the twentieth century when it was adopted in other Scandinavian countries such as Finland, Denmark, and Norway. The introduction of the Danish ombudsman, in the year 1955, marked the beginning of the global interest in the ombudsman schemes. Professor Stephen Hurwitz, the first Danish Ombudsman, began to write about his office in English. This activity stimulated interest in the Anglo-Saxon world and the scheme spread vigorously as more and more articles began to appear about ombudsman in English language publications. The introduction of an ombudsman in New Zealand, the first common law country, in the year 1962, sparked off a humongous interest in the concept of ombudsman throughout the world.

The concept of the ombudsman developed during the period of Swedish enlightenment where democracy, individual liberty, and humanitarianism were given importance over state absolutism, injustice, and misuse of public power. This period was further followed by World War II, which ignited considerable discussion in many countries outside Scandinavia, regarding the establishment of a mechanism to examine duties of administration, alongside address the grievances of the people. The ombudsman institution was established as a response to the major developments that took place during the twentieth century. During the 20th century, there was an increase in the discretionary powers given to the executive, further paved the way for the need for additional protection against administrative arbitrariness. The transition of many nations to democracy and democratic structures of governance over the past few decades has led to the establishment of many more ombudsman offices across the globe.

While commenting on the usefulness of the institution with respect to transition countries, Sir, John Robertson has written the following; “The Ombudsman institution is seen in those nations as valuable insurance against falling back into olden habits, and a highly influential oversight organization to ensure that the bureaucracy has a more human face”. The role of the ombudsman during this period was to ensure that all public officials perform their duties with justice, honesty, morality, and public responsibility. Thus, the office of ombudsman became a unique instrument to represent and protect the rights and interests of citizens.

The concept of an ombudsman is the one that has evolved rapidly in a variety of constitutional settings throughout the world. Office of ombuds is now found in countries irrespective of being rich, poor, old, or new. Countries, be it capitalist economies or socialist economies, unitary states or federal states, civil regimes or military regimes, presidential or cabinet systems, find a need for the establishment of the office of ombudsman. By the year 2004, the office of ombudsman exists in approximately 120 countries across the globe.

Conclusion

Ombudsman is one of the foremost institutions that control the maladministration done by public officials and other agencies. It plays a vital role in developed countries as well as in developing countries. Every country has its own legal framework with respect to the institution of Ombudsman. Whilst in some countries, it has more autonomy and powers, performing effectively and efficiently, whereas in other countries; it has the authority of investigation only. To conclude, the ombudsman at its core is a verification institution driven by a set of ethical and moral virtues. Some schemes rely considerably on the identity of the ombudsman as an insider in public administration while others rely more on the independence of the ombudsman. However, beyond the many models, contexts, and styles of work differentiating them, all ombudsmen share the basic working principles in order to safeguard the rights and interests of the public and to effectively address their grievances.


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