Thematic Lecture: The Parliamentary Ombudsman Experience – Reflections on the Past, Present, and Looking to the Future

A Thematic Lecture on the Parliamentary Ombudsman Experience took place in the plenary hall of Parliament, organised by the Office of the Ombudsman in collaboration with Parliament. This event was highlighted by reflections on the past and present, with a forward-looking perspective by Mr Rob Behrens, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman of the United Kingdom. Mr Behrens was in Malta at the invitation of the Parliamentary Ombudsman of Malta, Judge Emeritus Joseph Zammit McKeon.

In his welcome address, the Speaker of Parliament, Hon Anglu Farrugia, MP, stated that in our current landscape, the role of the Ombudsman remains as crucial as ever. Ombudsmen are not just mediators but guardians of justice, often standing as the last line of defence against administrative injustice. Amidst intermittent difficulties, many success stories set benchmarks for impartiality and effectiveness.

The Speaker revisited his previous remarks, recalling a discussion about the possibility of creating an ad hoc session in Parliament to debate the Ombudsman’s recommendations once they are tabled. He highlighted this approach as a potential initiative to foster agreement between the government and the opposition, which would enhance transparency and improve the processes for addressing issues that arise.

Judge Emeritus Joseph Zammit McKeon, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, emphasised the essential relationship between a civilised society and its steadfast commitment to democracy and human rights in his speech. He argued that democracy, underpinned by a strong system of checks and balances, is fundamental to a civilised society. This extends beyond traditional state organs to encompass the media, civil society, and constitutional bodies like the Office of the Ombudsman, which plays a pivotal role in ensuring government accountability and the protection of individual rights.

Ombudsman Zammit McKeon continued that he is convinced that the Office should also be a protector of human rights. So far, the Office in Malta, as the law stands at present, does not have that specific role. He believes that this should not remain the case, and it is a matter of public knowledge that he is striving very hard for this state of affairs to change as soon as possible.

Additionally, the Ombudsman highlighted the evolving challenges faced by modern democracies, particularly in light of government expansions and the creation of new administrative bodies. He underscored the Office’s independence as its strength, which is achieved through fearless action and building trust with the public. As democracies evolve, the role of the Ombudsman must also adapt to continue effectively safeguarding the rule of law and ensuring the public administration operates for the benefit of all citizens, thus maintaining the delicate balance of a thriving democratic society.

The keynote speaker, Mr. Rob Behrens, CBE, the UK Parliamentary Ombudsman, emphasized the importance of an Ombudsman’s independence and truthfulness in power dynamics. He described the role as more of an art due to the complexities and daily challenges faced, including navigating ambiguities and building crucial relationships with Parliament and jurisdictional bodies. Behrens stressed the need for impartiality and empathy towards individuals lodging complaints against well-resourced public entities, often seeing the Ombudsman as a final recourse for addressing service failures from government departments.

Those present had the opportunity to ask questions to both Ombudsmen on different issues related to their respective experiences.

In his concluding remarks, the Speaker of the House reflected: “Today’s lecture reinforces the significance of our Parliament, highlighting its role beyond just enacting laws and scrutinising the Executive. It underscores the importance of providing space for its officers, like the Ombudsman, to raise awareness about the country’s constitutional offices, further strengthening our democratic framework.

Speeches:

Speech by the Speaker of the House, the Hon. Anglu Farrugia

Speech by the Parliamentary Ombudsman of Malta, Judge Emeritus Joseph Zammit McKeon

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