Exploring the Constitution
Are citizens able to gain redress of their grievances?
In a democratic society people should be able to question what has happened through their contact with public bodies, if they have had poor treatment, think that mistakes have been made or feel a decision has been unjust. Nearly a million and a half complaints are made each year to central government bodies and, in addition, complaints are made to local authorities. The majority are in relation to health, social security and taxation matters but housing and immigration decisions are also the subject of complaints
There are a number of ways in which redress can be found:-
Public bodies have established complaints systems and between a half and two-thirds are resolved through these. For example, the Health Commission deals with complaints about NHS treatment and the Independent Police Complaints Commission with police actions. If someone wants to take a complaint to law, the courts will want to know that other avenues have been exhausted.
The may be a formal appeal system against decisions, for example, whether the correct decision has been made about a welfare payment or a tax demand. Some appeals are dealt with by Tribunals, which have been created by Act of Parliament, such as Employment Tribunals that deal with unfair dismissal of employees or Valuation Panels that decide on whether the valuation used to set council tax for an individual property is too high. Their procedure is more like a court of law and people can be represented by lawyers. Tribunal decisions can then only be challenged on a point of law because the wrong procedures were used.
An Ombudsman for Administration and Health deals with complaints against central government. The Ombudsman can only look at cases of maladministration which is, for example, whether the wrong procedures have been followed or whether there was unnecessary delay, and also where there was an adverse effect on the applicant. Cases have to be referred by an MP on behalf of the person complaining. There is also an Ombudsman for local government and a range of other Ombudsman for other areas such as Prisons and Probation.
If other areas have been exhausted then the person complaining can seek judicial review of the decision in the High Court. From the late 1960s judges have been increasingly ready to look at the decisions of public bodies, using a range of tests such as whether the body had the powers to take an action or whether they considered all relevant factors and ignored all irrelevant factors. The Human Rights Act 1998 also gives judges the power to look at whether a decision has affected any of the rights contained in the Act. Sometimes interest groups will support an appeal to the courts in order to establish what the law is in an area and complicated cases may go from the High Court to the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court.
The problem with the various forms of redress are that they have limited or no power to give financial compensation to a complainant who wins the case. Therefore people may decide to take legal action for compensation. Within the law of tort, judges have developed the idea of a duty of care by public bodies. In cases where medical negligence has been proved and this has left someone with a disability, the amount of compensation awarded may be very large indeed.
Where there has been shown to be systematic faults by public authorities then the Government may decide to hold a public inquiry to thoroughly investigate an issue, as with the Leveson Inquiry into press intrusion into privacy and recent inquiries into child abuse. This may be a quicker Judicial Inquiry where the judge establishes the main facts and issues, or a much more lengthy Statutory Inquiry where interested parties are represented by barristers and are able to question witnesses, as with Leveson.
People making a complaint can also use various means to help them:-
- People regularly contact their MP, or the equivalent in the parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and most MPs now a constituency office with full-time staff that can help with problems. A letter from an MP can speed up the investigation of a complaint by a public body and get it looked at more carefully and, where relevant, can write directly to the Minister responsible. In serious cases, they can ask a question in Parliament or even initiate a debate on the issue raised by an injustice. The numbers of cases that they deal with help MPs to understand issues that are becoming serious. When the Child Support Agency, which was set up to ensure that absent fathers pay towards the cost of their children made large numbers of mistakes about the financial assessments in these case, MPs were getting so many letters of complaint that their pressure on the Government led to the replacement of the Agency with a new body. People can also contact their local councillor if it is a local issue but councillors are underused and most people see the MP as the person to contact for any issue.
- There are a range of voluntary organisations that will help people make a complaint of which the most important are Citizens Advice for anyone and Age UK for older people. They will help people set out a complaint and may represent them at an appeal or tribunal. Some interest groups deal specifically with the problems that a particular group have with public bodies, such as Shelter for homeless people, and will lobby MPs and Government on their behalf.
- Complaints that are causing extreme distress and not being properly dealt with may be taken up by the local or national media. Interest groups may look to run a campaign through the media.