Frequently Asked Questions

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Q. What is an Ombudsman or a Complaints Commissioner?

A. An Ombudsman or Complaints Commissioner is someone authorized to receive and investigate citizen complaints against government agencies. The word "Ombudsman" is a Swedish word meaning "agent", "representative, or "deputy". The modern concept was started in Sweden in 1809 to create a balance between the powers of Government and its citizenry. An Ombudsman or Complaints Commissioner is responsible for investigating and resolving complaints from members of the public against a public authority or institution and he or she can make recommendations to bring about a fair settlement.

Q. What exactly does a Complaints Commissioner do?

A. Complaints Commissioner receives complaints from members of the public about Government agencies (officials, departments or statutory bodies), investigates the complaints and, if he finds them to be justified, (if he finds maladministration), he writes a report on each with recommendations to the relevant government agency.

Q. Who can complain?

A. Anyone – and that includes a group of persons or a corporation - who has contact with a government agency about anything and feels that the agency treated them improperly or unfairly. All residents or temporary residents within the Virgin Islands are covered. No fee is charged.

Q. What is maladministration?

A. Maladministration is the name given to a whole variety of failures by public officials in handling a citizen's dealings with the state. It could be any of the following listed examples but may also include others not listed.

List of Topics of Maladministration

Q. What are some examples of complaints that might be put to the Commissioner?

A. A person can complain that they had been treated unfairly or improperly discriminated against; for example, they had been denied a benefit that others in the same position got, for no good reason. A complaint might be that a government officer had kept a member of the public waiting much too long for an important response; or that the officer had been rude, or unreasonable, or had made a mistake. One should always first try to have his/her grievance resolved by the department or agency that caused it, complaining to chief officer and giving that agency the opportunity to put matters right. If the agency does not handle the complaint professionally then that failure may be included in the complaint to the Commissioner later.

Q. Under what authority does the Commissioner operate?

A. The Constitution is the main authority; it establishes the position or office of Commissioner and states its independence. The Complaints Commissioner Act 2003 sets out the detail of what the Commissioner can do and must do.

Q. Exactly how much authority does the Complaints Commissioner have?

A. The Commissioner's powers to investigate are very broad. He or she has the power to enter and inspect the premises of any department of Government or public authority; to call for, examine, make copies of and, where necessary retain any document kept on such premises; and there carry out any investigation in pursuance of his or her function. Obstructing the Commissioner or his or her staff in doing this function is a crime. The Commissioner does not, however, have the authority to enforce his or her recommendations.

Q. How does one complain?

A. Complaints must usually be made in writing addressed to the Commissioner. Writing includes sending by email, and via our website from which one can upload a complaint registration form directly. We also supply forms by email or at the office. On the sister islands there are printed forms at the District Offices or at the Post Office.

Q. So if the Commissioner does not get a written complaint, is he or she unable to act?

A. The Commissioner can begin to act on complaints made over the telephone providing the person complaining does come in soon and sign a document setting out the complaint or sends such a document electronically or in the post. The Commissioner can also investigate a matter that comes to his attention if it appears to him that some person or group may have suffered an injustice as a result of wrong Government action.

Q. Can a person complain about anything at all that the Government does that affects them?

A. Yes, but the Commissioner cannot investigate every complaint that he receives. He cannot investigate proceedings or deliberations of the House of Assembly or the Cabinet, nor any actions of any judge, magistrate or any court; nor can he look into the exercise of constitutional duties by the Attorney General, the Auditor General, and the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Q. Are there any other exceptions or restrictions?

A. Yes. If the complaint concerns a Government policy made by the Cabinet or a Minister, the Commissioner cannot look into the policy. He also is not allowed to investigate a matter in which, in general, the complainant can get a civil remedy in court, or can get a remedy by appealing to some other body set up for the purpose. For example, under the Physical Planning Act 2004 there is an appeal body to which one can appeal against decisions of the Development Control Authority. In the Immigration Act there is an appeal provided to the Governor against a deportation order. There are several other such provisions in various laws. Someone who has a grievance in those cases cannot bypass those bodies and go direct to the Complaints Commissioner. Or rather, the law prevents the Commissioner from investigating any such complaint where the complainant has not used the appeal avenue provided.

Employment matters within Government or a public body would also not come within the Commissioner’s authority, nor would action taken by the proper authorities to investigate crime or protect national security.

Q. If a complaint is made in writing and it is within those matters that the Commissioner is permitted to investigate, is he bound to investigate?

A. Not necessarily. The Commissioner is not bound to investigate a complaint that is very old (over one year) or one he thinks is frivolous or mischievous or trivial. If the complaint is anonymous or the Commissioner cannot establish who made it, he can also decide not to proceed. If he decides not to investigate for any reason he tells the complainant why, in writing.

Q. How will the Commissioner carry out an investigation?

A. In the usual manner, by asking questions, taking statements, reviewing documents – in short, by taking any action that can help to get all the facts or the truth of the matter. The law gives the Commissioner power, if he finds it necessary in any case; to summon persons to appear before him to give evidence and produce documents so as to make sure that his investigation is effective. There are exceptions to this power. The Governor cannot be compelled to appear, nor can a Minister of Government. There is also no power to compel any witness to produce Cabinet papers. Otherwise the power to investigate is quite wide and strong.

Q. How long will investigations take?

A. There is no simple answer. The length of time will depend on the particular matter, on the number of complaints with which the Commissioner is dealing at the time and other factors. The aim will be to complete each investigation as quickly as possible, usually within 3 months of receiving it.

Q. What happens after an investigation is concluded?

A. The Commissioner will write his findings and opinion; he will inform both the complainant and the head of the Government agency involved. If he recommends action to remedy an injustice he will send a copy of the report to the Governor and every member of Cabinet. If the complaint is found to be without substance, then he will so inform the complainant and the agency complained about, giving his reasons.

Q. Suppose the Government agency concerned ignores the recommendation. What happens then?

A. The Commissioner must then have a special report on the matter laid on the table at the House of Assembly, thereby also making it public. There, his authority ends.

Q. Exactly how much authority does the Complaints Commissioner (Ombudsman) have?

A. The Commissioner’s powers are very broad. The Commissioner has the powers of the High Court to summon witnesses to appear before him an to compel them to give evidence on oath and to product documents relevant to any matter under investigation. The Commissioner also has the power to enter and inspect the premises of any department of Government or public authority, to call for, examine, make copies of and, where necessary retain any document kept on such premises and there carry out any investigation in pursuance of his function.

Q. What if I am not pleased with your services at the Complaints Commission?

A. If you wish to complain about the manner in which we dealt with your complaint (for example, if you feel that you have not been treated reasonably or fairly) or about any member of staff, please call or write to the Complaints Commissioner. If you are not satisfied with the result, please write directly to:

His Excellency the Governor
Governor's Office
PO Box 702, Road Town

You may also complain to the Premier and the Leader of the Opposition. We will provide a form at our offices that will make it easy for you to do this, or you may click here to first submit your complaint to the Complaints Commissioner.