Belfast Telegraph

Attorney General tells Public Service Ombudsman she has no power to threaten public with legal action

Public Services Ombudsman Marie Anderson and Attorney General John Larkin.
Public Services Ombudsman Marie Anderson and Attorney General John Larkin.

A disagreement has developed between the most senior lawyer in Northern Ireland and the ombudsman charged with holding public bodies in Northern Ireland to account.

The Attorney General John Larkin has written to the Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) Marie Anderson telling her that she does not have the power to threaten members of the public with legal action if they disclose her reports saying they are confidential.

NIPSO investigates complaints made by people who believe that public bodies in Northern Ireland, such as government departments, their agencies or health service providers, have not acted properly or fairly towards.

Mr Larkin, in a letter published by the BBC's Nolan Show, said: "That the ombudsman herself considers the report to be confidential until she decides to publish it is irrelevant because the ombudsman has no power to make an order restricting publication.

"She ought not to threaten citizens with contempt proceedings when there is no apparent basis for subjecting their proposed actions to such a sanction."

One woman contacted the Nolan Show claiming that she had received a letter from Ms Anderson's office threatening her with sanction under the Official Secrets Act if she published the report.

It is understood the ombudsman, in some cases, does not publish reports if they are linked to ongoing legal proceedings.

In its statement a NIPSO spokesperson said:  "The ombudsman welcomes the discussion around the publication of her reports. The power to report investigations was the subject of much debate prior to the passing of the Public Service Ombudsman act in 2016.

"The ombudsman believes she has acted appropriately within the context of the legislation approved by the assembly, relevant case law and established ombudsman practice in the United Kingdom and internationally.

"The 23 reports available on our website provide evidence of the ombudsman's detailed investigations of complaints and demonstrate the rigour with which the ombudsman holds public bodies to account.

"She will continue to publish her reports when it is in the public interest to do so through a process guided by the principles of openness and transparency. However, complainants, independent advisers, public bodies and others involved in investigations entrust her with the most sensitive information and opinion.

"The ombudsman must act to protect this information where she sees a potential breach of confidentiality."

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