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Follow-up given by institutions to critical remarks and further remarks

1. Introduction

The European Ombudsman serves the general public interest by helping to improve the quality of administration and of service rendered to citizens by the EU institutions[1]. At the same time, the Ombudsman provides the Union's citizens and residents with an alternative remedy to protect their interests. That remedy is complementary to protection by the EU Courts and does not necessarily have the same objective as judicial proceedings.

Only the Courts have power to give legally binding judgments and to provide authoritative interpretations of the law. The Ombudsman can make proposals and recommendations and, as a last resort, draw political attention to a case by making a special report to the European Parliament. The effectiveness of the Ombudsman thus depends on moral authority and, for this reason, it is essential that the Ombudsman’s work be demonstrably fair, impartial, and thorough.

Some of the Ombudsman's decisions closing inquiries contain constructive criticism and suggestions to the EU institution concerned in the form of critical and/or further remarks. A critical remark is premised on a finding of maladministration, whereas a further remark is made without such a finding. Each year, the Ombudsman publishes a study of the extent to which the EU institutions have examined critical and further remarks, drawn lessons from them, and introduced systemic changes that should make maladministration less likely to occur in the future.

2. The purpose of critical remarks and further remarks

Against this background, further remarks have a single purpose: to serve the public interest by helping the institution concerned to raise the quality of its administration in the future. A further remark is not premised on a finding of maladministration. It should, therefore, not be understood as implying criticism of the institution to which it is addressed but rather as providing advice on how to improve a particular practice in order to enhance the quality of service provided to citizens.

In contrast, a critical remark normally has more than one purpose. Like a further remark, a critical remark always has an educative dimension: it informs the institution of what it has done wrong, so that it can avoid similar maladministration in the future. To maximise its educative potential, a critical remark identifies the rule or principle that was breached and (unless it is obvious) explains what the institution should have done in the particular circumstances of the case. Thus constructed, a critical remark also explains and justifies the Ombudsman's finding of maladministration and thereby seeks to strengthen the confidence of citizens and institutions in the fairness and thoroughness of his work. Moreover, by showing that the Ombudsman is willing publicly to censure the institutions, when necessary, critical remarks enhance public trust in the Ombudsman's impartiality.

A critical remark does not, however, constitute redress for the complainant. Not all complainants claim redress and not all claims for redress are justified. When redress should have been provided, however, closing the case with a critical remark signals a triple failure. The complainant has failed to obtain satisfaction; the institution concerned has failed to put the maladministration right; and the Ombudsman has failed to persuade the institution concerned to alter its position[2].

Where redress should be provided, it is best if the institution concerned takes the initiative, when it receives the complaint, to acknowledge the maladministration and offer suitable redress. In some cases, this could consist of a simple apology.

By taking such action, the institution demonstrates its commitment to improving relations with citizens. It also shows that it is aware of what it did wrong and can thus avoid similar maladministration in the future. In such circumstances, it is unnecessary for the Ombudsman to make a critical remark. If, however, there is a suspicion that the individual case may result from an underlying systemic problem, the Ombudsman may decide to open an own-initiative inquiry, even though the specific case has been resolved to the complainant's satisfaction.

3. Critical remarks in cases where a friendly solution or draft recommendation is not appropriate

From the foregoing, it can be seen that many critical remarks represent missed opportunities. The best outcome would have been for the institution concerned to acknowledge the maladministration and offer suitable redress, which in some cases could consist of a simple apology. If it had done so, no critical remark would have been necessary.

The complainant, however, is not always right and the institution concerned is entitled to defend its position. About half of the cases that are not settled by the institution at an early stage eventually give rise to a finding of no maladministration. In these cases, the institution succeeds in explaining to the Ombudsman’s satisfaction (and, in some cases, also to the complainant's satisfaction) why it was entitled to act as it did and why it will not change its position.

Where the Ombudsman disagrees with the institution and finds maladministration for which the complainant should receive redress, the normal procedure is to propose a friendly solution. If the institution rejects such a proposal without good reason, the next step is usually a draft recommendation.

In cases where the Ombudsman considers that the institution is unlikely to accept a friendly solution, or that a friendly solution would not be appropriate, he may proceed directly to a draft recommendation. In proposing a friendly solution, the Ombudsman aims to achieve agreement between the institution concerned and the individual complainant, who is often seeking personal redress. If the maladministration that should be remedied primarily affects the public interest, the Ombudsman may consider it more appropriate to make a draft recommendation than to seek a friendly solution.

Apology as a form of redress deserves special mention in this context. In order to be effective, an apology must be sincere. An apology that is perceived as insincere only makes matters worse. The complainant is more likely to accept that an apology is sincere if it is offered by the institution on its own initiative, rather than in response to a formal suggestion from the Ombudsman. For this reason, the Ombudsman often considers that it would not be useful to propose a friendly solution consisting of an apology. A draft recommendation to apologise is even less likely to be useful.

If nothing can be done to put the maladministration right, a critical remark provides a fair and efficient way of closing the case.

A critical remark in such circumstances is fair both to the complainant and to the institution concerned. It is fair to the complainant because it confirms that the complaint was justified, although no redress is possible. It is also fair to the institution concerned because it constitutes the outcome of Ombudsman procedures designed to ensure that the institution is informed of the allegations, claims, evidence, and arguments submitted by the complainant. The same procedures afford the institution the opportunity to state its point of view in full knowledge of the case against it before the critical remark is made.

A critical remark is efficient because it avoids prolonging an inquiry that cannot lead to any redress for the complainant.

As regards the public interest, the remark itself provides the necessary educative dimension. The institution to which the critical remark is addressed should draw the appropriate lessons for the future. What is appropriate will depend on the maladministration in question. An isolated incident, for example, may not need any follow-up.

4. Critical remarks following rejection of a friendly solution or a draft recommendation

The institution’s acceptance of a friendly solution proposal or draft recommendation normally leads to closure of the case on that ground.

If the complainant rejects a proposed friendly solution without good reason, the Ombudsman normally considers that no further inquiries into the case are justified.

The institution’s rejection of a friendly solution proposal or draft recommendation may lead to a number of possible outcomes.

First, the Ombudsman may take the view, after considering the institution’s response, that his earlier finding of maladministration should be revised.

Second, if the institution's detailed opinion on a draft recommendation is not satisfactory, the Ombudsman may make a special report to the European Parliament. As first pointed out in the Ombudsman’s Annual Report for 1998, the possibility to present a special report to the European Parliament is of inestimable value for the Ombudsman's work. Special reports should, therefore, not be presented too frequently, but only in relation to important matters, where Parliament is able to take action in order to assist the Ombudsman.

Finally, the Ombudsman may decide to close the case with a critical remark, either at the stage when the institution rejects a friendly solution, or if the institution's detailed opinion on a draft recommendation is not satisfactory.

In some cases, the case may be closed with a critical remark because the Ombudsman takes the view that the institution has convincingly shown that, although there is maladministration, the remedy proposed in the friendly solution or draft recommendation is unsuitable and no other solution or redress is possible. In such cases, the critical remark is essentially similar in nature to that which would have been made if the case had been closed without a friendly solution or draft recommendation.

Unfortunately, there are also cases in which the institution refuses the Ombudsman's suggestions for reasons that are not convincing. Indeed, there are even a few cases in which the institution refuses to accept the Ombudsman’s finding of maladministration.

Such cases risk undermining the moral authority of the Ombudsman and weakening the trust of citizens in the European Union and its institutions. International experience shows that the ombudsman institution functions most effectively where the rule of law is well established and where there are well-functioning democratic institutions. In such contexts, the public authorities usually follow an ombudsman's recommendations, despite the fact that they are not legally binding, even if they disagree with them.

[1] Article 228 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union empowers the Ombudsman to inquire into maladministration in the activities of the "Union institutions, bodies, offices or agencies, with the exception of the Court of Justice of the European Union acting in its judicial role". For brevity, the term "institution" is used here to refer to all the EU Institutions, bodies, offices, and agencies.

[2] The Ombudsman's annual reports include many examples of cases in which the institutions have provided redress to complainants.