Representing the best interests of the client, the adversarial system, and legally enforceable court decisions — these are the signposts on the well-travelled road to justice in the common law system. All you need is access to the resources necessary to pursue a case through to the end of the process.
But what if you lack those resources?
In the arena of administrative justice, the ombudsman’s office is a sort of “soft-power” alternative to the “hard-power” of the legal system. Accessible via a 1-800 phone call and available free of charge, this route may be the only option available to the most vulnerable and dependent in our society.
The ombudsman approach does not involve representing a client, an adversarial process, or a legally enforceable decision, yet it results in fair treatment for individuals from public authorities — administrative justice.
A somewhat quixotic mix of law, social policy and public administration, this approach emigrated to Canada (and other common law jurisdictions) from its Scandinavian homeland and natural civil law milieu in the 1960s and 1970s. It takes what might be seen as a collectivist rather than an individualistic approach to administrative justice, operating on the premise that a democratic society works better if every person is treated fairly by public authorities and that an independent agency is necessary to make sure that happens.
Consultative and resolution-oriented, but mandated to speak truth to institutional and political power and comment publicly on issues of unfair treatment — to point out if the emperor is not wearing any clothes — the ombudsman’s office has been described as both the conscience of the state and the champion of the citizen. Perhaps it is not a bad travelling companion to have on the road to administrative justice.