The position of ombudsman was created in 1962, to mediate between citizens and the state. Growing government bureaucracy and a cumbersome public petitions process led influential people to promote the idea in the 1950s. Champions included National Party politicians John (Jack) Marshall and Ralph Hanan, Labour Party politician H. G. R. Mason and the Secretary for Justice, Dr John Robson.
The concept originated in Sweden in the early 19th century. The Swedish ombudsman had jurisdiction over almost all national and municipal officials, who could be disciplined and even prosecuted for incorrect behaviour. Ombudsmen were later established in Finland and Denmark. New Zealand followed the Danish example, which emphasised mediation rather than prosecution.
Why no Ombudswomen?
The word ombudsman is Swedish and, despite appearances, is gender-neutral, applying equally to men and women. There have been several female ombudsmen in New Zealand, the first of whom was Nadja Tollemache (1987–92).
New Zealand ombudsmen
The office of ombudsman in New Zealand was established under the Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombudsman) Act 1962 as an independent office protected by the authority of Parliament. This set an international precedent, as in other countries ombudsmen were appointed by government. The first ombudsman was Sir Guy Powles, a former lawyer, soldier and diplomat. He held the office from 1962 until 1977. His performance made the institution widely respected, and its authority and scope was extended. The Ombudsmen Act 1975 allowed the appointment of several ombudsmen, and their jurisdiction was extended to statutory boards and local government.
The success of the office of ombudsman in New Zealand has led to what is sometimes called ‘ombudsmania’. Many other countries throughout the world have established ombudsmen to ensure that the state is accountable to the people. In the 21st century, around 110 countries had ombudsmen at the national level of government.
The ombudsman stood outside government and the legal system, and had to achieve a fine balance between defending the rights of citizens against unfair acts of government, and preserving the rights of public servants to a fair hearing. Giving the ombudsman wide powers to investigate complaints provided a non-adversarial way of seeking truth and resolving disputes.
Terms of office
Each ombudsman is usually appointed for five years, and may be reappointed for another term. Whenever there is more than one ombudsman, one becomes chief ombudsman with responsibility for the Office of the Ombudsmen. In 2017 there were two ombudsmen.
Ombudsmen have four areas of responsibility:
- maladministration (bad, inefficient or improper administration)
- official information
- inspection of detention facilities (such as prisons).