Message to stakeholders and the public from the NSW Ombudsman

A public health emergency of the kind we now face calls for exceptional, even unprecedented, measures.

Yet the rule of law, norms of reasoned decision-making, and respect for human rights do not become optional, even in times of crisis. Adherence to those core values is not inconsistent with the taking of necessary measures. Indeed it is complementary as it helps to engender the trust, co-operation, and in some cases sacrifice, that will be needed for those measures to be effective.

Nor does Government accountability cease during times of emergency.

Particularly where extraordinary powers are conferred on Government officials to deal rapidly and flexibly with a crisis in the absence of usual mechanisms of Parliamentary oversight, the role of Parliament’s ‘watchdog’ agencies in assuring continued accountability may become even more acute.

Our focus during this crisis

In light of the disruptions to our own services at this time, over the last week or so my office has had to more rigorously prioritise our work. We apologise to members of the public and our stakeholders who may be impacted by delay and disruption.

However, our primary focus has been maintaining our services for those people who may be particularly vulnerable at the present time, and within that category we are prioritising those complaints that raise serious concerns requiring rapid response.

Supporting vulnerable people

It is clearly imperative that rapid and broad-scale action be taken to contain the spread of COVID-19, and achieving that objective is in the interest of all of us.

However, in both the design of measures toward that objective, and especially in their practical implementation, careful regard must be given to those in our community who are particularly vulnerable.

There are those who may be especially vulnerable to the virus itself. We know, for example, that those who are already being held in detention, those accommodated in group homes and institutional settings, including the aged and people with a disability, as well as our First Nations communities, may be more vulnerable to this viral contagion.

Viruses like COVID-19 spread especially quickly in closed spaces, as recent outbreaks on cruise ships have demonstrated. The risk is greater the more crowded such spaces are. Other pre-existing conditions that might increase the risks associated with contracting COVID-19 may also be more prevalent among these populations. It is appropriate that these special vulnerabilities be taken into account when deciding what measures should be taken to protect these communities.

There are also those more vulnerable to the actions that are being taken to combat the pandemic.

If people in group homes, residential facilities or detention centres are not being visited as frequently or at all by family members, volunteers, official community visitors and so on, this will reduce both informal and formal oversight against potential abuse or neglect.

Social distancing requirements will see families increasingly confined together at close quarters, in circumstances that may be increasingly pressured by the emotional impacts of social isolation, health anxiety, job loss and financial distress. The demands on public agencies and community service providers responding to homelessness, domestic violence, and child protection needs can, sadly, be expected to increase. And this may happen at the same time as their own services are being severely disrupted by the pandemic.

The full extent of these impacts may be hidden until well after the pandemic has passed.

It is imperative that such matters be considered now, when designing and especially when implementing measures to combat contagion. It is also essential that relevant agencies and service providers continue to be supported to reach out and respond to the needs of those who may face collateral harm from the measures being taken to address COVID-19.

Maintaining an external complaint avenue

The NSW Ombudsman’s complaints service will continue to operate throughout this current emergency.

We are, however, carefully triaging the contacts we receive. This means that vulnerable complainants raising serious concerns that need urgent attention are being dealt with first.

In an emergency, public confidence is more important than ever, and the continued provision of an external avenue of complaint can assist to maintain that confidence. It can provide a credible and independent source of information and assurance to affected individuals that actions are both lawful and reasonable. Of course, it can also provide a mechanism for addressing concerns if that is not the case.

We thank all complainants, and all members of the public, for their patience as we work to maintain our services during this challenging time.

Information for the public and our stakeholders

On this website is some detailed practical information for the public, as well as public agencies and other stakeholders, regarding how they can continue to access our services.

Please note, however, that the NSW Ombudsman has a limited legal jurisdiction, and we can only receive complaints about the certain conduct of NSW public authorities and of community service providers that are funded by the NSW Government. The information below includes contact details for other Ombudsman and oversight bodies, which may be able to receive complaints and answer your queries about other matters.

As this situation remains fluid and is evolving rapidly, we will continue to update the information below on our website.

Michael Barnes, NSW Ombudsman

3 April 2020

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