Tuesday 30 Oct 2018
By: Deborah Glass, Victorian Ombudsman
It was great to meet so many of you at your recent annual conference. As I discovered from those I ‘speed dated’, many of you are not aware of what my
office can do to help your clients. I am keen to rectify that situation – by providing some information below and by encouraging you to get in touch,
whether you have a matter you’d like us to look into or would like my staff to visit and talk more with you about how we can assist.
Although the Ombudsman is not an advocacy organisation, in many ways our goals are aligned – you provide free assistance to people experiencing financial
hardship, while I want to ensure public authorities treat all Victorians fairly. And I am very mindful that unfairness is most often felt by those
who are disadvantaged.
I know we can’t solve the many causes of financial disadvantage – but we do play a key role not only in dealing with people’s complaints but in making
the system fairer for all. Our services are free, independent and impartial.
How may we be able to help?
We take complaints about the administrative actions – such as a decision, or failure to make a decision - of over 1,000 public bodies in Victoria. That
includes local councils, state government departments, bodies established by legislation eg Fines Victoria, WorkSafe and VicRoads, and some private
organisations acting on behalf of those bodies.
While we can’t help everyone, complaints we resolve may result in:
Even if we can’t help in an individual case, every complaint we receive forms part of a pattern that allows us to identify systemic issues, so if you are
unsure whether we have a role, get in touch.
The exercise of discretion
One area that is frequently the subject of complaint is how agencies exercise discretion – such as whether to issue an infringement or to overturn it following an internal review. Many of these complaints involve government agencies declining to exercise discretion, often in circumstances that not only warrant it but are the very reason the discretion exists.
To be clear, I don’t deal with all fines matters, as my legislation provides that where people have the option to dispute something in court, my office
should not get involved. But I have a discretion myself, to take on such cases where there would otherwise be an injustice. This might be, for example,
where because of someone’s disadvantaged circumstances, it would not be fair to expect them to pursue their case in court.
The following case studies illustrate how my office can assist in resolving matters involving people experiencing financial hardship.
Council ‘hardship policy’ case study
A financial counsellor contacted my office on behalf of his client, who was in financial hardship. The client had received a notice from her council that
legal action would start in seven days to collect outstanding rates.
The counsellor said the council would not deal with him because the matter was now in ‘legal action phase’. When we made enquiries with the council, staff
said they had tried to contact the resident to discuss payment options but had not received any response. Because she did not make contact with them,
they escalated the matter.
The matter was resolved when council staff offered to put the legal action on hold if the resident contacted them, and said they would negotiate a payment
plan to assist her.
Fines Victoria case study
A community legal centre contacted us about their client who had been issued 10 infringements for road tolls. The legal centre had made a ‘special circumstances’
application to Fines Victoria, requesting it withdraw the infringements on the basis their client was homeless and living with a mental illness.
Fines Victoria did not approve the request because of the number of outstanding fines in the client’s name. We highlighted to Fines Victoria that the Attorney-General’s Guidelines to the Infringements Act 2006 require fines to be revoked if special circumstances exist. As a result of our enquiries Fines Victoria agreed to revoke all 10 infringements and,
instead, issue the client with a warning.
For more case studies about the type of complaints that can be resolved informally by my office, see www.ombudsman.vic.gov.au/early-resolution-casebook
Investigations that have benefited financially disadvantaged Victorians
For those who attended my presentation at the FCRC conference, you will have heard that I don’t just deal with individual complaints, I have own motion
powers to investigate systemic issues, and many of these investigations concern the treatment of financially disadvantaged Victorians. Some of these
investigations have arisen from a single complaint, or a series of complaints, indicating the problem may be affecting many more people.
Over the past 12 months, these investigations have included:
How you can raise your client’s matter with us
If you think my office can assist with a matter, I encourage you to contact us:
Phone: 9613 6222 (Melbourne) / 1800 806 314 (toll-free, regional only)
Hours of operation: 9am-5pm, Monday-Friday
Get in touch to organise a visit by my staff
If you would like a visit from my staff, so they can chat with your team about my office’s role, please contact:
Manager Communications and Media
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