'Ombudsman dealt with record no. of complaints'

State Comptroller report says National Insurance Institute, Police, Treasury received most complaints in 2011.

By J. PARASZCZUK, R. EGLASH, Y. LAPPIN, N. SHEMER
March 20, 2012 15:55
Bar-On (L), Lindenstrauss (C), Rivlin

Bar-On (L), Lindenstrauss (C), Rivlin 370. (photo credit: Itzik Harari, Knesset Spokesman)

 
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State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss filed a report to the Knesset on Tuesday, detailing the work of the State Ombudsman’s Office during 2011.

Lindenstrauss said the report – the seventh and last of its kind in his term as state comptroller and state ombudsman – showed the ombudsman dealt with a record number of complaints in 2011: A total of 15,000, an increase of 6.5 percent from 2010.

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The state ombudsman, part of the State Comptroller’s Office, examines public complaints against government offices, state institutions and local government bodies.

The National Insurance Institute (NII) was in the top spot regarding the number of public complaints received (1,388) followed by the police (785), the Treasury (508) and the Justice Ministry (471).

Of local authorities, the Tel Aviv Municipality received the most complaints (232) in 2011, followed by Jerusalem (218) and Haifa (175).

Lindenstrauss said the growth in public complaints to the ombudsman last year was partly due to the increased number of regional ombudsman offices.

The ombudsman has public offices in Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Nazareth Illit and Beersheba; in 2011, an additional office opened in Lod.



This year, two more branches are expected to open in Sderot and Kiryat Shmona, which Lindenstrauss said will help weaker populations in the peripheral regions, including new immigrants, older people and minorities who cannot afford to hire a lawyer voice complaints against government institutions.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said the ombudsman increases trust between Israeli citizens and the country’s institutions, and that improved public access via regional offices coupled with the ombudsman’s efficiency in dealing with complaints would help citizens know they have a place to turn to and complain.

Hillel Shamgar, the director of the State Ombudsman’s Office, said the report’s findings indicate that government institutions need to realize they serve the public, rather than the other way around.

In the report, Lindenstrauss stressed that in 2011, the ombudsman’s local offices made extensive efforts to reach out to weaker communities to let the public know about their work. In Beersheba, the branch employed an Amharic-speaking lawyer and ombudsman staff visited the Ethiopian community in Arad and took out advertisements in Russian, Arabic and Hebrew in local newspapers, the state comptroller noted.

Lindenstrauss added that the Ombudsman also played a role in the fight against public corruption and helped protect whistleblowers who exposed corruption in their workplaces.

In 2011, the ombudsman received 66 complaints from employees concerning corruption in the government or state bodies in which they worked, of which 26 were made about government departments.

By law, the state comptroller can issue temporary or permanent injunctions to protect government employees who blow the whistle on corruption in their workplaces.

However, more needed to be done to help whistleblowers, who in some cases have faced threats to life and property after exposing workplace corruption, Lindenstrauss said, and noted that the ombudsman asked the Witness Protection Authority – part of the Public Security Ministry – to examine ways in which that government body could help support whistleblowers.

Separate sections of the report dealt with complaints made against each government office, highlighting those of particular interest or severity.

A section on the police highlighted failings that occurred in four separate investigations, and took the police to task for waiting a year before launching an investigation into a case involving human organ trade, a grave criminal offense.

In October 2009, a woman filed a complaint with police after her very ill father traveled with a couple to China for the purpose of receiving a kidney in a transplant operation.

The man paid $100,000 for the operation. But it was carried out in a substandard way and in unhygienic settings, and the father returned to Israel in a poor state of health. He died soon afterwards.

After receiving the complaint, police districts argued among themselves over who had jurisdiction over the investigation, with each district pushing along the case to another.

Months passed by and no action was taken against the suspects.

“Only in September 2010, a year after the complaint was lodged, was the suspect questioned for the first time,” the report said. The investigation was completed in March 2011 and passed to state prosecutors, who found it incomplete, and called for further inquiries. The case material was only passed back to state prosecutors in May 2011.

The ombudsman found that police failed to act according to procedure, according to which the police district in which the bulk of the offense was carried out should head the investigation.

The ombudsman notified the police of a failure to deal with “grave criminal offenses,” adding that the original complaint should have received an “urgent and swift” response.

The police said it has studied the case and passed along new instructions to all districts to avoid such a failing from reoccurring.

Regarding the Justice Ministry, most complaints (98) were made against the Legal Aid department, followed by the Attorney General’s Office (56 complaints) and the Land Title Registration and Settlement Department (30 complaints), including one about a real estate transaction that fell through because the buyer had been told the property was subject to an administrative freeze.

The ombudsman found the Justice Ministry failed to cancel the freeze within seven days.

The ombudsman also dealt with complaints against the court system, including that of a man who lost an employment lawsuit after the Beersheba District Labor Court incorrectly appointed an expert witness. The complainant lost his case based on the testimony of a doctor the court appointed as a cardiology expert, but later found out the doctor was not an expert in that field of medicine. After the complainant appealed to the National Labor Court and the ruling was overturned, he turned to the ombudsman to complain about the mistake and to ask for compensation.

In a chapter on the Treasury, the report focused on the Tax Authority’s handling of cases involving separated couples. The ombudsman found the authority occasionally demonstrated inflexibility toward taxpayers and ignored its own rules on what defines a separated couple.

One complaint from June 2010 involved a woman whose husband refused to grant her a get (divorce certificate), even though they had been separated for 26 years. The woman’s application to a Gush Dan assessment officer for an NIS 396 tax rebate for the previous year was rejected on the grounds that her husband had not signed the application form.

The woman’s application was approved after the ombudsman overruled the officer, and ordered that the authority reconsider the application without insisting upon the husband’s signature.

Lindenstrauss said that the ombudsman also channeled more resources into dealing with complaints concerning people with disabilities.

The report said that during 2011 the ombudsman dealt with a wide range of issues to help improve conditions for people and children with disabilities, including helping individuals understand and receive state benefits, ensuring placements for children in special education or integration in regular classrooms, housing, transport, health and rehabilitative treatments and equipment.

The ombudsman has tried to speed up the complaints process and improve communication between the disabled community and local authorities, the report said.

Some complaints involved tackling serious flaws in transportation arrangements for children with autism, which is supposed to be the responsibility of the local authorities.

The report said the ombudsman drafted a series of solutions to address the problems and met with senior local authority officials.

In one case, the ombudsman addressed a complaint from a family seeking access to the local elementary school for their wheelchairbound son. The Education Ministry had earmarked NIS 216,000 for an elevator in the school but there had been serious delays. Only after the intervention of the ombudsman was the work carried out, the report noted.

The ombudsman also dealt with complaints relating to obtaining parking spots and disabled parking badges for people with disabilities, helping to gain assistance for a blind man living alone and forcing the Prisons Service to allow a man with severe vision impairments to wear sunglasses during his walks in the prison yard.

The Ombudsman dealt with several complaints against the Education Ministry, including regarding schools that started lessons before 8 a.m., which is not permitted. Another complaint, by a kindergarten teacher in a religious school, concerned an unreasonable delay in refunding tuition fees for a degree. The ombudsman investigated and the ministry eventually repaid the woman’s fees.

The ombudsman also dealt with complaints from the Beduin community against the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. One woman complained after the authority refused to change her address in the population registry because she moved to live in an unrecognized village after her husband died. As a result, the woman was refused assistance from the social services department of her local regional council.

An investigation by the ombudsman revealed that by law, the authority must make an exception for Beduin and must record in the population registry the name of their tribe and the district in which they reside.

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