Exploring the Constitution
Are citizens systems of redress good enough?
The great majority of complaints to public bodies are resolved satisfactory and all public bodies know that they have to have an adequate complaints procedure. The courts have become more ready to carry out judicial review of the decisions of public bodies. However:-
Whether redress happens depends on how good the complaints systems of the various bodies are. We know that most complaints are resolved as far as the bodies are concerned and few are taken to the courts but we do not know how many people just give up. When public funding is being reduced in all these bodies, the number of staff dealing with complaints may be reduced or services may have been contracted out to private firms who may not have such a good complaints system. The quality of the system depends on whether local councillors and Ministers ensure that they are regularly monitored. The National Audit Office, which reports to Parliament, may sometimes investigate the procedures of public bodies.
Access to complaint systems depends on whether people understand them. There are a wide variety of avenues for complaint and putting together detailed arguments may be quite difficult for people who are not familiar with bureaucracy. This is likely to be especially so for poorer people, some older people and people whose first language is not English. A National Audit Office investigation found that most people wanted to sort out a complaint by just picking up a phone and talking to someone. The Ombudsman systems are rarely used and only a small minority of people in the country were aware of it
The system is often adversarial and so difficult for people not used to legal proceedings. Even though Government advice tells them not to, public officials may close rank to protect the organisation. People may not be able to afford legal representation – only a quarter of parents who appear before appeal panel to assess whether their children have special needs have had legal help. Since 1949, there has been a system of legal aid so that people without the income to take a case to appeal or through the courts can get public funding to employ a solicitor and a barrister. The Government is drastically cutting back legal aid, as part of its austerity programme, so that it is no longer available in many cases.
Problems that public bodies are not familiar with may be ignored, This happened when workers whose health was affected by working with asbestos began to raise the problem and it also happened recently with the child abuse scandal in Rotherham, where the police and social services did not take complaints seriously.
Whether redress is available in complicated cases depends on the ability of the courts to carry out judicial review. The courts have become more active in recent years but the doctrine of Parliamentary Supremacy means that Parliament can always change the law to reverse the rulings of the courts in relation to procedures and decisions of public bodies, although the Human Rights Act makes this more difficult in some areas. Governments, in recent years, have tried to exclude some areas from judicial review, though the courts have often resisted this.