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An ombudsman is an independent person or agency who investigates and resolves complaints between parties outside of the court system.
Government ombudsman services are free to the public, like many other ombudsmen and dispute resolution services, and are a means of resolving disputes outside of the court system which can save time and money in getting a dispute resolved.
There are also Industry and Organisational ombudsmen that, unlike the government ombudsman services, industry-based ombudsman resolve complaints made against their members such as energy companies, telecommunication providers etc who are required to pay a yearly membership fee that funds the operations of the service. Industry-based ombudsmen generally operate according to a constitution and are supposed to be impartial in their decision-making meaning they are often required to act neither as an industry nor a consumer advocate.
How an Ombudsman Works
The ombudsman is there to help bring a dispute to a resolution and in the first instance, they will nearly always encourage you to try and resolve the issue/dispute directly.
In the instance this cannot be achieved, the Ombudsman will act as a mediator to try and reach a resolution that is fair to both parties.
In most instances, it is free for the consumer.
While faster than the court system, Ombudsman complaints can still take some time to reach a resolution however they are focussing on reaching quicker resolution wherever possible.
The Telecommunications Ombudsman, for example, claims that almost 90% of claims are resolved within 10 business days.
As well as resolving individual disputes, an Ombudsman generally has a responsibility to help improve service and administration in the organisations about which they take complaints, especially where a complaint indicates there is a more general/systemic problem.
For example, if there are a lot of complaints about a particular issue, the Ombudsman will work with the organisation or make recommendations on changes to services/policies/processes etc to reduce future complaints about the same issue.
Types of Ombudsman
In Australia, there is an Ombudsman for each state as well as Ombudsmen that cover a range of government departments including:
- Australia Post
- Child Support
- Immigration and Border protection
The Commonwealth Ombudsman includes:
- Defence Force Ombudsman
- Immigration Ombudsman
- Law Enforcement Ombudsman
- VET Student Loans Ombudsman
- Overseas Students Ombudsman
- Private Health Insurance Ombudsman
Industry and organisational ombudsmen
It differs between the states but can include:
- Energy and Water Ombudsman
- Public Transport Ombudsman
- Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman
Where can you learn more?
Wikipedia, as usual, is a great source of all the current ombudsman services or you can visit the Commonwealth Ombudsman website which has a range of Frequently Asked Questions, online complaint service and more.
Most Ombudsman also publishes an annual report (and sometimes quarterly) where you can find information about the number and type of complaints, resolution timelines etc by industry.