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Comparative studies, Complaints, Consumer-citizens, Ombuds and reviewers, Research

Trusting the middle-man: impact and legitimacy of ombudsmen in Europe

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In this blog post, Naomi Creutzfeldt, University of Oxford, discusses the findings concerning UK ombudsmen schemes in her ESRC-funded comparative study of ombudsmen in Europe. More information is available on her project website; a report summarising findings of the UK study, and additional individual ombudsmen reports, are also available here.

Faculty of Law, Oxford University, Faculty Members

By Naomi Creutzfeldt

The research project

The ombudsman landscape throughout EU member states presents a variety of institutional and jurisdictional arrangements, operational styles and decision-making processes. Although this poses some challenges in being able to conceptualise a unified ombudsman institution, it offers distinct advantages for the study of the relationship between decision-making practices on the part of the ombudsmen and perceptions of procedural justice and levels of trust on the part of users across different jurisdictions and cultures.

Despite the significance of ombudsmen to our constitutional and civil justice landscapes, very little is known about users’ perceptions of the fairness of the procedures and practices and the significance of these perceptions for levels of trust in particular ombudsman offices.


Here is a summary of findings of the UK report:

Executive summary

The aim of this report is to share findings of my comparative research project on ombudsmen. This report focuses on the UK, involving two of its public-sector ombudsmen (Local Government Ombudsman and Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman) and three private ombudsmen covering five sectors (Legal Ombudsman, Financial Ombudsman Service and Ombudsman Services covering property, energy and telecoms).

This project is very timely. The world of consumer ADR has been transformed through two recent developments: first, the continuing crisis in civil litigation funding through the courts, as a consequence of cuts in legal aid and increased legal fees; and second, the implementation of the consumer ADR directive (2013/11/EU) as the main pathway for consumer-to-trader disputes, which mandates the creation of a pan-European ADR network.

Similarly, big changes to the UK public-sector ombudsmen are underway. In an attempt to make it easier for the service user to pursue a complaint, in the ever-blurring boundaries between public and private service providers, the Public Administration Select Committee and the Gordon report have recommended bringing together the jurisdictions of the Parliamentary and Health Ombudsman, the Local Government Ombudsman and the Housing Ombudsman, to create a clearer pathway for complainants.

This summary report offers a unique comparative empirical dataset that provides a first step towards benchmarking (public and private) ombudsman users’ expectations. This report is based on recent ombudsman users’ responses to a survey that was sent out by all participating ADR bodies from September 2014 to March 2015. The dataset used in the analysis was weighted to reflect the actual frequency of cases for each of the ombudsmen.

Realising, and respecting, the difference in types of complaints that a public-sector ombudsman deals with, compared to a private-sector ombudsman, this report highlights important similarities and sector specific distinctions. The themes of the survey questions, therefore, reflected comparable stages in a consumer complaint journey (initial contact, the procedure, the outcome, and the overall experience), and the report is structured accordingly. There is no individual ombudsman data reported here; rather private- and public-sector ombudsmen are grouped into just those categories.

Key findings

Similarities were found in respondents’ experience of both public and private ombudsmen relating to the expectations of the initial contact and thereby shaping further engagement. With the procedures’ progression, however, a stark divide between users of public and private is apparent. As mentioned above, this report combines all ombudsmen in the study into public and private groups, reflecting their weighting in relation to each other. Individual reports provide a more detailed picture.

First contact

  • People have too high expectations from the outset.
  • It is very important how ombudsman staff treat people at initial contact.

 The procedure

  • Respondents in public schemes were far less likely than those in private schemes to be satisfied with how their cases were dealt with, with almost 60% ‘very dissatisfied’.
  • The majority of the respondents were happy with the method of communication they most commonly used with the ombudsman, with almost 80% ‘very happy’ or ‘fairly happy’.

 The outcome

  • There were stark differences between public and private schemes, with respondents reporting a favourable outcome for only 11% of public cases, compared to 53% of private cases.
  • Having obtained an outcome, the majority of respondents (over 60%) were either ‘very willing’ or ‘fairly willing’ to accept it. However, contrasting public and private schemes highlighted huge differences; those with public cases are far less likely than those with private cases to accept the outcome. Only 10% of respondents with public cases were ‘very willing’ to accept the outcome, compared to 42% for private cases. Conversely, 51% of respondents with public cases were ‘very unwilling’ compared to 22% for all private cases.
  • The majority of respondents felt the ombudsman was acting according to the law. Users of private ombudsmen reported greater levels than those of public ombudsmen.

Overall satisfaction

  • Looking at respondents’ overall impressions of the ombudsman, the majority felt that the procedure was either ‘somewhat fair’ or ‘very fair’ (60.4% overall). Conversely, around a quarter felt the procedure was ‘somewhat unfair’ or ‘very unfair’.
  • Contrasting public and private schemes once again showed very significant differences in responses and far more negative responses from those in public schemes compared to private schemes. Overall 57% of those in public schemes felt the procedure was ‘somewhat unfair’ or ‘very unfair’. This compared to a quarter of those in private schemes.

For individual reports please see: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/trusting-middle-man-impact-and-legitimacy-ombudsmen-europe/project-reports.


About the author: Dr Naomi Creutzfeldt is an ESRC Research Fellow, Centre for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford. She is also a civil and commercial mediator.


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