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The topics in the Dial-A-Law series provide general information on a wide variety of legal issues in the Province of Alberta. This service is provided by Calgary Legal Guidance funded in part by the Alberta Law Foundation.
This topic will discuss the role of the Ombudsman in Alberta. It will explain how the Ombudsman may help if you are dissatisfied with a decision or action of a particular department, agency, or board of commission of the Alberta Government, as well as regional health authorities and several professional bodies, including some health professions, accounting professions, foresters and veterinarians.
The Ombudsman is an appointed officer of the legislature given power to investigate administrative decisions and actions of the government. Each complaint is investigated impartially as the Ombudsman is independent of the government. The investigations are conducted free of charge.
An investigation by the Ombudsman’s office is the last resort to deal with a complaint you might have regarding a decision of a government department or professional organization. Most government departments will provide internal appeal processes to deal with complaints about their decisions or actions and you must go through their internal process first. If you remain dissatisfied after going through all of the available appeals processes of a particular department, then you may contact the Ombudsman to see whether they can assist you further.
Official complaints to the Ombudsman must be made in writing. An online complaint form is available on the Alberta Ombudsman website under the link entitled, “How We Help”. You must include information about your complaint including the steps you have taken to try to resolve the complaint. For example, you may have contacted the department supervisor or the manager, or you may have participated in a formal appeal hearing.
If your complaint is approved by the Ombudsman for investigation, a letter is sent to the appropriate government body to inform them of the decision to investigate and request a detailed response from the particular department.
The Ombudsman investigator will review the findings with the individual lodging the complaint to advise them of the outcome of the investigation. Each individual has the assurance that an independent and impartial investigation has taken place.
The Ombudsman has authority to get information required for the investigation. An investigator will gather any information necessary to make a decision regarding the merits of the complaint. After evidence has been gathered, the Ombudsman will consider whether errors were made in the government’s delivery of a public program.
If there is an error, the Ombudsman has the power to recommend corrective actions to the department or professional organization. The recommended action may be a simple apology. The recommendation may be to revise the agency’s operating procedures. Sometimes, the Ombudsman may determine that no administrative error occurred and the actions of the government were fair and proper. The Ombudsman cannot change a decision, but can make recommendations to the appropriate department, or the Minister. If the complaint cannot be resolved at the Ministerial level, the Ombudsman may report to the Lieutenant Governor in Council or the Alberta Legislative Assembly. The Ombudsman may also make the matter public if it is considered to be of public interest. The remedy is not legally binding; however it may be ultimately enforced through political pressure and public opinion.
Although the Ombudsman does not have authority to order the government to act, its powers of persuasion can be very effective. In most instances, government representatives are willing to resolve justified complaints. Formal reports to the Lieutenant Governor in Council, the Legislative Assembly or the public are rarely, if ever, required. Nevertheless, the ability to make this type of disclosure does exist.
The Ombudsman’s office will investigate administrative decisions and actions taken by an Alberta body only. The Ombudsman cannot investigate the actions and decisions of the Legislature, the Courts, and Crown lawyers, federal or municipal governments, and boards of hospitals, universities, schools and technical institutes. The Ombudsman also cannot investigate disputes between private individuals or complaints about MLAs and individual elected officials, including government officials. However, you may contact the Office of the Ombudsman for information and referrals on where to make your complaint. Assistance is provided by directing individuals to the appropriate body or complaint mechanism to deal with their specific concerns.
The Ombudsman has offices located in Edmonton and Calgary. The telephone number for the Edmonton Office is 780- 427-2756 (toll free in Alberta by first dialing 310-0000) and the Calgary Office is 403-297-6185.