Governments which institute the office of Ombudsman are to be lauded for giving their citizens a great gift. This office provides a necessary protection for the ordinary citizen, who may be defenseless against the abuse or misuse of power by public authorities.
Our office of Ombudsman has been vacant for some months and, it is good to see the intent to remedy this situation.
I refer to a notice in last Sunday’s issue of Amandala which invites applications for appointment as Ombudsman. One of the qualifications for appointment is a law degree; another is that the applicants should be between 30 and 50 years old.
A law degree may be an important asset in a candidate for any senior position in the private or public sector but: should it be a requirement to be appointed Ombudsman?
In my experience, when District Commissioners administered the public service operations in the different district divisions of the country, they also served as magistrates, with the assistance of law clerks, who did not have law degrees. Mr. E. O. B. Barrow, Mr. Albert Johnson and Mr. Ramon Ramirez come to mind. They were a match for the attorneys representing offenders in their courts. These men were career civil servants with thirty or more years in different departments, at different levels, which made them capable, when they reached the top of the ladder, to administer any law or group of laws.
In my view, the Ombudsman should be someone with a record of probity, rectitude, good judgment, integrity and competence over many years. Sagacity is to be preferred to brilliance; a good reputation to popularity.
A good choice might be a senior public officer, retired or nearing retirement; a Head of Department or Administrative Secretary. I have a high regard for what 30 years of training in the public service can do for a person of above average intelligence. These were the people who used to head government ministries as Permanent Secretaries.
When it comes to investigating irregular practices in government Ministries and Departments, an Ombudsman with a public service background would have an advantage because of his/her knowledge and experience.
A bit of history. We can learn a lot from history.
Sir John Robertson was president of the International Ombudsmen Conference, when he became to Belize to assist our first Ombudsman, Mr. Paul Rodriguez, in setting up the Office of the Ombudsman. He was appointed Ombudsman of New Zealand at 65 years, after he retired as a Public Administrator. He served two five-year terms as Ombudsman and was elected President of the IOC.
Sir John did not have a law degree. Neither does Mr. Rodriguez. There are twenty Ombudsmen in the Caribbean and Central American countries. Most of them are not lawyers.
Paul was appointed Ombudsman when he was 61 years old and he served until he was 70. We have a precedent. We now know what a man of advanced age can do, if he is highly motivated and in good health. Mr. Rodriguez dealt with over 4,000 cases in nine years. They are recorded in his annual reports.
Finally, there is no substitute for experience. I think that the minimum age for appointment as Ombudsman should be fifty years.
For the general public to get a more complete picture of what the office of the Ombudsman is about, I present this extract from one of the nine annual reports of our first Ombudsman:- The Office of the Ombudsman
The idea that there should be someone invested with the power to give aid and comfort to the individual citizen who suffers unjustly at the hands of public and other authorities was conceived in Sweden, which appointed the first Ombudsman in 1807.
The countries of Europe, England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy followed. Since then, many other countries have come to recognize that the Office of the Ombudsman makes the lot of the individual citizen of a democracy better by far than it would be otherwise. Before the institution of this office, the citizen who was unable to pay for the services of legal counsel was obliged to accept and suffer manifold injustices at the hands of those who exercised state or industrial authority over him.
The first Ombudsman of Belize was appointed by government in 1999, even though it was decided, in principle, that the post be created and included in the budget many years ago.
Today, there is an Ombudsman Association in the region, comprising most of the countries in the Caribbean, totaling thirteen members. They meet regularly and exchange information about the emerging roles their offices play in the life of their countrymen and, consider ways to serve their country more effectively.
The functions of the Ombudsman are governed by the Ombudsman Act of 1994. This Act gives the Ombudsman all the powers he needs to intercede on behalf of the ordinary citizen in his relations with public and other authorities, in order to ensure that he is dealt with fairly and, that the powers given to or implicit in these authorities are not abused.
Citizens of Belize are endowed with certain rights and freedoms by the Constitution. These rights and freedoms are maintained by the Judiciary. When they are being threatened or circumvented, the courts will intervene, if appealed to, when authorities or any other body which exercises power over the citizen abuses that power or deals unjustly with him.
In reality, many citizens suffer the consequences of the improper or unjust exercise of power by public or other authorities because, they are unable to afford legal counsel to put their cases before the courts. Also, the quality of the advocate they can afford to retain may not be up to the task of representing successfully against counsel available to the authorities. The average citizen, therefore, may be assured that when they take their cause to the Ombudsman, clothed with his High Office, he can deal with authority from a position of strength.
In investigating a complaint, the Ombudsman has a distinct advantage over any other investigator, including the police.
Firstly the Ombudsman is a judge, consequently those who have information to give in cases being investigated by the Ombudsman will respect his office and, there are sanctions for offenses by those who do not cooperate fully with authorized investigators. Secondly, Statements made pertinent to an investigation may be taken under oath, which assures their veracity. And, thirdly, the Ombudsman is always striving to carry out investigations with urgency, in order to bring cases to a conclusion. Such has been the record in Belize.
It is provided in the Act that anyone who has a complaint against any action by a public authority may appeal for intervention by the Ombudsman. The Act states that a complaint should be made in writing. This puts the onus on the complainant who may or may not have the ability to present his case completely and accurately. It has become the practice in Belize to encourage citizens who have grievances to come into his office, where they are assisted in formulating their complaints. As a result, many more cases are dealt with by the Ombudsman than otherwise.
In the course of his investigating a complaint, the Ombudsman may discover that what gave rise to the complaint are irregular and dishonest practices which have taken root in the authority. In such cases, the Ombudsman is required to investigate these practices, which come under the heading of corruption, and to take appropriate action.Amandala