'Free feedback': improve your handling of human rights complaints

By David Donaldson

June 7, 2017

Victorian ombud Deborah Glass

Only Victoria and the ACT have charters of human rights, but being aware of how human rights apply to your work is important even if you’re not bound to consider them in the same way.

Complaints are “free feedback” to government about how someone thinks it is doing its job, as Victorian Ombudsman Deborah Glass reminds public servants in the recently released Good practice guide: managing complaints involving human rights, which features a range of case studies and tips to help improve handling of complaints.

“I encourage all state and local government leaders to learn to love their complaints,” says Glass.

The ombudsman urges public servants to acknowledge complaints quickly, noting that delays in response times was the third most common complaint to her office in 2015-16. “These types of complaints can be avoided if you acknowledge and respond to complaints promptly,” she says, recommending 10 days as a good time limit, unless the problem is urgent and requires a faster response.

The ombudsman expects public authorities will respond to all complaints unless the person is not seeking a response, or you have previously told them that you may not respond.

It’s important to ensure services and the complaints process are as accessible as possible, allowing flexibility to be able to respond to the needs of the people engaging your agency. The ombudsman points to an example of a man who had disabilities that meant he could not write being told the only way to make an application to the Taxi Services Commission was by filling out a form. After intervention by the ombudsman, a manager from the commission called the man and he was able to provide the necessary information over the phone. Having a range of options from the start would have avoided a complaint being made.

Complaints handing

This flowchart shows how a tiered approach to complaint handling can work in practice. Source: Victorian Ombudsman.

Identifying which human rights are most relevant to your own work can help predict where problems might occur even before they arise. After a complaint is received, however, asking a few simple questions can help work out the nature of the problem:

  • are the person’s human rights being respected, or are they being interfered with unfairly?
  • are the person’s human rights being protected?
  • are the person’s human rights being enjoyed, that is, can they can fully exercise their human rights?

Record which human rights are relevant to the case and be aware of whether reasonable limitations on those rights apply in the circumstances. Good record keeping will assist you if your decision is later the subject of a complaint, and can help identify trends or patterns that might point to problems in your organisation.

Step by step: how to consider human rights issues

Considering human rights issues in complaints. Source: Victorian Ombudsman.

Responding in a clear and effective way can also help avoid creating further problems. “When my office makes enquiries with agencies about complaints, we often find they provide us with convincing explanations for their actions,” Glass says. “If this information had been communicated to the person originally, they might not have escalated the complaint to us.” Making a genuine apology can be another easy way to ensure poor practice is not making the situation worse, and is under-utilised, she believes.

It is good practice to call the complainant to explain the reasons for the decision. Additionally, a good outcome letter should:

  • briefly describe the complaint and identify the issues
  • use plain English and avoid bureaucratic language, acronyms and jargon
  • explain the steps you took to investigate or resolve the complaint
  • set out any relevant laws or policies in simple language
  • clearly identify the outcome to the person who had the complaint and, if you have substantiated the complaint, the remedies you are offering them
  • provide reasons for your decision
  • give the name and telephone number of an officer they can contact to discuss the outcome
  • advise them of the Victorian Ombudsman and any other relevant review rights
  • translate information into a language other than English where appropriate
  • convey the outcome in a way appropriate to a person’s particular communication needs (for example, literacy or disability).

The Victorian charter

The Victorian charter of human rights and responsibilities requires public authorities and people delivering services on behalf of government to act consistently with the human rights. Its introduction around a decade ago has “made a huge difference”, according to former equal opportunity and human rights commissioner Kate Jenkins. Specifically, it protects:

  • The right to recognition and equality before the law
  • The right to life
  • The right to protection from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
  • The right to freedom from forced work
  • The right to freedom of movement
  • The right to privacy and reputation
  • The right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief
  • The right to freedom of expression
  • The right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association
  • The right to protection of families and children
  • The right to taking part in public life
  • Cultural rights
  • Property rights
  • The right to liberty and security of person
  • The right to humane treatment when deprived of liberty
  • Rights of children in the criminal process
  • The right to a fair hearing
  • Rights in criminal proceedings
  • Right not to be tried or punished more than once
  • The right not to be prosecuted for retrospective criminal laws.
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