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Tuesday 30 Oct 2018

Did you know you can contact the Victorian Ombudsman about many issues affecting your clients?

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:

  • a remedy for a member of the public
  • agreed arrangements between the person with the complaint and the agency to progress the matter
  • improvements to the agency’s administrative practices that strengthen how it performs its functions and prevent unnecessary future complaints.

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.

 

Case studies

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)

Email: ombudvic@ombudsman.vic.gov.au

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:

Ainslie Gowan  

Manager Communications and Media

9613 6235

 

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