THE Organisation for Responsible Governance wants legislators to revise the ombudsman bill to remove the attorney general’s power to prevent the ombudsman from carrying out their work.
ORG benchmarked the bill against counterpart legislation around the region.
The organisation noted the bill, which is expected to be debated in Parliament this week, would allow the attorney general to give notice to the ombudsman to exclude the exercise of its powers “in whole or in part to any specific complaint being investigated” if that work “might be prejudicial to the public interest”.
ORG said: “This clause undermines the strength and independence of the act and the ombudsman by conveying the power to limit the remit of the office to a politically appointed official. Additionally, there is no specific set of conditions or guidelines in which the attorney general may exclude the powers of the ombudsman. The bill allows that they are able to be limited based on ‘an opinion.’
“This is not reflective of best practices or regional norms. Jamaica does not afford the attorney general such power, and Trinidad, which does afford the attorney general some ability to limit the ombudsman function, has a very specific set of criteria. The ombudsman office should certainly have checks and balances. However, the bill already provides for appeal of decision and a process for removal of the ombudsman. Revision or removal of this clause would preserve the strength of the bill.”
The bill empowers the Prime Minister to advise the Governor General that the ombudsman be removed.
ORG said this should be revised to broaden who can remove the ombudsman.
“Although there are specific conditions for removal outlined, placing the power solely in the remit of the prime minister reduces the independence and potential for political influence to the Office of the Ombudsman,” ORG said. “Best practices would recommend that this power lies with the agreement of both houses of Parliament.”
The Minnis administration drafted an ombudsman bill but never debated the legislation.
The new bill was tabled in the House of Assembly late last month.
The ombudsman will monitor and promote compliance with international and domestic human rights laws.
The bill covers state-owned enterprises and other public institutions.
A committee would recommend candidates for the ombudsman to the governor-general. The committee would include the prime minister, leader of the opposition, a representative of the Judicial and Legal Service Commission, a representative of the Public Service Commission, a representative of the Bahamas Chamber of Commerce, and a member to represent civil society groups. ORG recommends including a representative from the Disabilities Commission.
The organisation also recommends that the ombudsman disclose their assets and interests yearly, like elected and appointed officials, to ensure transparency and accountability.