Public can challenge more state decisions
MEMBERS of the public who have been turned down for a university place, legal aid or overseas surgery will soon be able to ask the Ombudsman to investigate their case.
Just over 140 new state bodies will be brought under Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly's remit in the most significant expansion of her office's powers in the past 30 years.
The third-level education sector -- including universities, Vocational Educational Committees, Institutes of Technology and FAS -- as well as the State Examinations Commission, the Student Grants Appeals Board and the Central Applications Office will now all be subject to possible investigations.
Other bodies which will also be held to account by the Ombudsman include the National Treatment Purchase Fund, HIQA, the Family Support Agency, Irish Medical Council and the Legal Aid Board.
The remit of the Ombudsman will, with future legislation, be extended to cover prisons and bodies dealing with asylum and immigration.
Announcing the passage of the Ombudsman Amendment Bill through the Oireachtas, Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin described it was a "major milestone of reform".
"The major expansion in access for members of the public to the Ombudsman would be expected to further strengthen the standing of the citizen in their dealing with public bodies, ensuring that fair treatment is always provided, as well as improving the quality of decision-making and increasing accountability," he added.
An extension of the Ombudsman's powers has been mooted for the past 25 years, however successive promises to introduce reform fell by the wayside.
Welcoming the "historic" day for her office, Ms O'Reilly said she will be contacting the new bodies in the coming months to explain her role. She will also be raising awareness among the public.
The new legislation also strengthens the Ombudsman's power to initiate investigations off her own bat rather than waiting to receive a complaint from a member of the public.
Despite the expansion of her workload, Ms O'Reilly said she was not asking for more staff. However, she indicated that if she receives a flood of new complaints she will ask Mr Howlin to provide more staff.
State bodies failing to provide information to the Ombudsman can be brought to the Circuit Court. If the office believes a question of law arises from its investigation, it can refer the matter to the High Court.