Over the past year the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman had been investigating a number of complaints lodged by members of the public who claimed payment for damages allegedly sustained by their vehicles due to road surface defects, which complainants claimed should have been addressed by Transport Malta. A number of meetings were held with authority officials and numerous correspondence was exchanged where it was agreed that a procedure and criteria to be adopted in processing such claims needed to be determined, formalised and published by the authority.
The Authority gave serious consideration to this matter and took up this suggestion and created an internal complaints handling mechanism for the assessment of claims relating to arterial and distributor roads as defined in the National Structure Plan. A document, indicating the procedure to be followed by the Roads and Infrastructure Directorate of Transport Malta (RID) and the manner in which the claims would be examined, assessed and decided was passed on to this Office for its comments and possible suggestions.
The Ombudsman considered this initiative of the Authority as laudable and noted that once this internal complaints handling mechanism was properly publiscised, it would improve the resolution of pending issues with members of the public. The Ombudsman made a number of suggestions, which in his opinion, would render the procedure more effective and enable this mechanism to bring the Authority and claimants together so that an amicable and more effective determination of grievances could be reached within the shortest possible time and through the use of the cheapest methods.
These suggestions included:
a) the acknowledgement of all correspondence received from claimants within pre-established short time-frames;
b) a clear indication of the time limits applicable for the review and decision of claims;
c) where the claim is considered as not having been adequately substantiated,claimants are to be provided with details specifying the findings of the Committee and indicating detailed reasons for the refusal of the claim, so that claimant could request a reconsideration of the decision in terms of the procedure established by the Authority.
The Ombudsman also pointed out that an alternative dispute resolution mechanism which is completely independent of the Authority should be created in addition to the internal mechanism envisaged by the Authority for the resolution of those claims which were not resolved by this internal committee, adding that the Authority should not be involved in the re-examination of a decision of the Committee since this could mislead the public.
The Ombudsman suggested that this independent Board would replace the Appeals mechanism envisaged in the Authority’s guidelines and should be composed of competent persons whose decision is not dependent on approval by the Authority or any of its officials. Moreover, members of this board should be appointed for a pre-established term so as to ensure their independence and autonomy.
Recently the Ombudsman has been informed by the Authority that it has taken on board a number of his proposals and that these have been included in the Directorates’ Operating Procedure. The Authority however informed the Ombudsman that it is of the opinion that at this stage it is premature to set up an independent board, since it is confident that the committee set up possesses the necessary knowledge and will provide a transparent and credible process to all parties concerned. The Authority however assured the Ombudsman that the option to include one or more independent members to the Board will be revisited periodically as the Authority is confident that eventually such member will add value to the Board. The Authority stated that it fully understands the position taken by the Office of the Ombudsman and will continue to give its total support in any investigation of any claims.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman appreciates the Authority’s commitment to review the matter from time to time, as well as its cooperation and effort to improve customer service and the public administration. The Office will revert to the Authority periodically so as to monitor, when and if, further improvements can be made in line with the Ombudsman’s recommendation.
It is to be pointed out that this internal committee reviews claims related to those roads which fall within the remit of Transport Malta and not the Local Councils. In the case of roads for which local councils are responsible complaints are to be addressed to the respective local council in the first instance and can then be referred to the Office of the Ombudsman if the grievance is not resolved.
The Office assures the public that if complainants are not satisfied with the outcome of a claim lodged with this internal committee, complainants can always refer the grievance to the Office of the Ombudsman for investigation.