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June 8, 2016

Alice in Ombudsmanland

Reuel S. Amdur

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Alice in Ombudsmanland may well serve as an additional chapter for Lewis Carroll's famous Alice in Wonderland. The chapter could well be subtitled "In the Bureaucratic Rabbit Hole." But before beginning this weird and wondrous chapter, we need a bit of background.

First, what is the office of the Ombudsman in Ontario? 

The Ontario office is one of numerous such offices around the globe, inspired by a Swedish original, the aim being to help the individual in situations in which he feels he is facing injustice.  While the typical office relates to government, now some other organizations also have ombudsmen. 

The Ontario Ombudsman’s web FAQ states, “The Ombudsman investigates public complaints about Ontario government services.”  The role implies openness and accessibility for the little guy.

Now about the particular problem at issue. 

I work with a lawyer who represents a man currently in prison.  We’ll call him Cecil. 

That is where this strange tale begins.

I submitted a detailed complaint to the Office of the Ontario Ombudsman, along with an authorization for me to act on his behalf.  After a few weeks, having had no acknowledgement of receipt, I called the Ombudsman’s office.  The call was not returned.  A few days later, I tried again, with the same result.  Third time was a charm—or not. 

On the third try, I was connected to a woman.  I don’t know her name, but we’ll call her Alice.  I wanted to know what the status of the complaint was. 

She told me that she needed to talk directly to Cecil before she could talk to me.  I pointed out that the Ombudsman had his written consent.  No matter, she needed to talk to him first.  Besides, she said, “I cannot acknowledge or deny that he have received a complaint from him.”  This to the person who submitted the complaint, with my signature on it! 

Alice insisted that Cecil call her, so I wrote him a letter, telling him to do so.  He recently called me to describe what happened.  He called, but Alice was not available.  Call again.

When I talked to Alice, I told her that I thought Cecil and I were being bogged down in bureaucracy.  No, she insisted, it was to protect Cecil’s privacy.  Well, what is the difference between her privacy concern and my complaint about bureaucracy?  Let’s look at what has happened.

There was no acknowledgement to the complaint, certainly not to me and in all likelihood not to Cecil.  It took calls on three different occasions for me to be able to talk to anyone about the case.  No one called me back. 

You can be certain that she will feel no impulse to take the initiative to call you.

As you stumble down this bureaucratic rabbit hole, things get, in Carroll’s words, “curiouser and curiouser.”

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