Cover of Annual Report, 2003-2004Read the report

Ombudsman's Message


This past year has seen a continuation of the process of organizational renewal commenced last year as we pursue our mission of “working to ensure fair and accountable provincial government service.” It is my intention to ensure that my office demonstrates the values of Fairness, Accountability, Integrity and Respect not just in its words but in its actions. To that end, we have spent considerable time looking inward and reviewing our policies and practices to ensure that they are consistent with our stated values.

An extensive human resources audit was completed this year. The resulting audit report made 86 recommendations in 15 areas including strategic directions, recruitment, orientation and training, performance development and staff relations. Many of the recommendations made in this report have already been implemented and we continue to plan strategically for implementation of the remaining recommendations.

My office produced a document entitled Looking Forward which reflects our corporate vision to the year 2005, the end of my term of office, and focuses on our public identity, service delivery model, staff and workplace culture and structure. In this process we recognized that a corporate vision should not be imposed by upper level management on an organization, but evolve with appropriate consultation with staff.

We initiated a comprehensive business planning process. The mission, values and vision of our organization are central to that business planning process and guided the creation of the organizational goals and team objectives for the year 2003–2004. Internal and external environmental scans were conducted to provide an overview of the emerging issues that are affecting the office today and that likely will impact our operations over the next few years. These scans also assist in the planning process. Flowing from the overarching organizational goals, the three functional areas of the office, which are complaint, corporate and legal services, each developed their own team objectives. Staff consultation and contribution was an important factor in this business planning process. The Annual Business Plan for 2003–2004 is available on our website (www.ombudsman.on.ca).

Our Annual Business Plan was critical in our financial forecasting and budget planning. This year, my office engaged in zero-based budgeting and further, developed multi-year forecasts for the subsequent two fiscal years. Rather than simply using averages or percentages in estimating budgets for the next fiscal year, each area of the office was required to justify its estimates from the ground up, based on the organizational goals. The final budget estimates and the methodology used to prepare them were shared with staff to foster a better understanding of the budget process and our organization’s financial accountability.

I believe that my office is well on its way to re-establishing a sound organizational foundation for the future. However, to remain relevant to the publics we serve, my office must also look outward. In the past year, our community education program saw significant results from our increased focus on connecting with community organizations whose clients are often most in need of our services. An Ombudsman’s effectiveness depends to a large extent on whether persons with complaints are aware of the Ombudsman’s existence. This year my office adopted an economical but effective strategy for the delivery of our message through the use of such vehicles as public service announcements and a variety of posters. Early indications, based on analysis of complaint statistics, suggest that these strategies are producing results.

There are many complaints that I cannot address, as they remain outside of the scope of my review. For instance, one issue that is of great significance to me in my role as Ombudsman is the public’s right of access to independent complaint resolution when complaints arise about services that are essentially public in nature but which are not within my jurisdiction. I believe that independent review of complaints provides a vital accountability mechanism. In addition to investigating individual complaints and recommending individual remedies, an independent oversight model that allows for broader review of issues, may result in systemic improvement and more efficient use of resources.

In previous Annual Reports, I have discussed the importance of ensuring that the Ombudsman continues to have an oversight role when specific services have been privatized. I was referring on those occasions to the privatization of driver testing and the operation of a correctional facility. In the context of the private operation of Highway 407, I noted that when government does engage in privatization initiatives, there must be accountability mechanisms which will enable government to ensure that private sector partners act fairly with the public. I believe that independent complaint resolution is integral to ensuring accountability.

In 1998, as part of its mental health reform strategy, the Ontario government began divesting control of a number of provincial psychiatric hospitals. Six of Ontario’s 10 provincial psychiatric hospitals have been divested to date and others are slated for divestment. When these facilities have been divested to public hospitals, because of their governance structure, they are no longer subject to my jurisdiction. My predecessor raised concerns regarding this situation. When I learned of the impending divestiture of yet another provincial psychiatric hospital, I contacted the Minister of Health and Long-Term Care expressing concern that divestment would result in patients losing their recourse to an independent complaint resolution mechanism.

While the Psychiatric Patient Advocate Office continues to provide advocacy services to patients of current and divested provincial psychiatric hospitals, and may resolve some concerns effectively, it is not an independent complaint resolution mechanism with investigative authority.

I continue to be of the view that there should be recourse for all psychiatric patients to an independent investigative body, as a last resort, to resolve outstanding complaints. The right of complaint empowers those who are often powerless. Psychiatric patients are particularly vulnerable. I believe that the right of complaint to an independent complaint resolution mechanism should be preserved when provincial psychiatric hospitals are divested and should be extended to similarly situated patients in psychiatric units of public hospitals.

While I encourage the creation of internal complaint resolution processes, I believe that, particularly in critical service areas, independent complaint resolution is warranted. Over the last few years, the provincial government has committed to ensuring accountability in the health sector and referred to the creation of a Patients’ Bill of Rights or more recently a Charter of Patients’ Rights and Responsibilities. While some formal complaint mechanisms exist with respect to certain health issues, such as professional conduct of health care providers, there is generally no formal right to complain regarding the administrative conduct of public hospitals and other health care facilities. My office receives many complaints regarding public hospitals, which do not come within my jurisdiction. The policies and practices of health care facilities often have a practical impact on patients and health care practitioners but are not subject to external review. I have encountered cases when it is a hospital policy, rather than a health care professional’s conduct, which appears to have negatively affected a patient. The self-regulating colleges have no
authority to deal with such issues.

In consultations with the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, I recommended that patients have the right to complain about the administrative conduct of health care facilities. I also encouraged the Ministry to consider an Ombudsman model for reviewing health care complaints. I believe that independent complaint resolution in the health care field would help create a more effective and responsive system while fostering public confidence.

Another significant service area in which there is no independent oversight model is the provincial education system. My office has received a number of complaints regarding school boards, particularly relating to resources for special education. I advised the Minister of Education that, given the fundamental importance of education in this province, I believe parents and in appropriate cases, students, should have recourse to an independent complaint resolution mechanism to resolve complaints about school boards.

The effectiveness of independent complaint resolution mechanisms is demonstrated in the case stories contained in this report. While the majority of our cases are resolved informally within a very short time frame, a number of cases this year required formal investigation. In situations in which I am considering supporting a case, I am required to provide the governmental organization in question with an opportunity to respond, prior to finalizing my views. It has been my experience that most cases that reach this stage are resolved.

Each year my office receives many complaints about the Ontario Human Rights Commission. However, most cases involving the Commission are resolved informally with its cooperation. This year, I did support one case in which it appeared that the Commission’s staff failed to accurately reflect a complaint. After receiving my investigative summary, the Commission acknowledged the errors in reports prepared by staff, extended an apology and offered to pay the complainant a modest amount of compensation to reflect the frustration and inconvenience he experienced as a result of its conduct.

I am reporting on four formal investigations into the Ministry of Community, Family and Children’s Services. A number of cases which were resolved informally with that Ministry are also highlighted in this report. The Ministry has a diverse and important mandate. Its programs and practices often have significant personal impact on children and families in this province. In one investigation, I raised concerns regarding the Ministry’s planning and monitoring of changes in the delivery of services for children with special needs. It appeared to me that, while the Ministry had responded to concerns raised by parents and the media, it had demonstrated a reactive approach and had no clear corporate vision of the scope of the situation. It also appeared that the major factor underlying complaints about access to services was a lack of residential supports for children with complex special needs. During the course of the investigation,
the Ministry committed resources to the development of a policy and funding framework for residential supports for children with complex special needs. The Ministry also assured my office that it would be engaging in comprehensive evaluation of all its programs and services on a four-year cycle.

In another case involving planning relating to an individual’s transition from a Ministry-operated facility to the community, I expressed concern about the Ministry’s apparent failure to ensure that it had written evaluation criteria. I also expressed the view that the Ministry should provide a timely explanation of its funding decisions, including the reasons supporting it. The Ministry acknowledged that I had identified important policy issues that it would take into consideration in future transitional planning.

The Family Responsibility Office (the FRO), now under the Ministry of Community, Family and Children’s Services, has consistently generated the second highest number of complaints to my office. This year saw an increase in complaints about the FRO. Two of the formal investigations reported on this year involved the FRO and 13 case stories spotlight errors and inefficiencies relating to the FRO’s administration. The FRO has had a checkered history of service delivery. In a previous own motion investigation reported in my 2000 –2001 Annual Report, I suggested the FRO’s service delivery problems largely resulted from outdated and significantly ill-suited computer technology. It was my belief then and so remains, that the FRO’s computer technology must be replaced, if the FRO is to meet its mandate effectively. The continued inadequate technological base will inevitably have negative impact on staff morale and performance. I recommended that all steps necessary be taken to secure adequate resources to permit the
FRO to meet its mandate. I received positive assurances that the necessary funding would be sought to permit a full evaluation of the need for necessary repair.

I have continued to monitor the FRO’s progress with respect to funding for new technology. The FRO obtained funding for a feasibility study, which commenced in September 2001 and was completed this fiscal year. I have recently been advised that the FRO submitted a request for funding to the government to proceed with the development and implementation of a case management service delivery business model and supporting technologies. The Deputy Minister has advised me that he will not be in a position to discuss the status of this proposal until the budget is tabled in the Legislature. At the date of writing this Report, that event had not occurred.

At the end of December 2002, there were $1.1 billion in support arrears owing to support recipients and $212.1 million in support arrears owing to government as a result of assignments for social assistance. The total support arrears outstanding is $1.3 billion and a review of the FRO’s statistics indicates that this figure grows every year. The FRO performs a uniquely significant service for individuals and families who rely on its enforcement of support orders for their income. If support is not forthcoming, many recipients and their children are forced to rely on social assistance, which in turn results in support arrears being owed to the government. My earlier investigation demonstrated the FRO will not be in a position to improve its services, including enforcement for recovery of arrears to support recipients
and government, unless its antiquated technology is replaced. I believe that a new case management service delivery business model will only be effective if the FRO has the technology to support it.

The continuing problems at the FRO are amply demonstrated in two cases this year in which the FRO did not take required action. In one case, despite the support recipient’s attempts to prompt the FRO to enforce her support order, the FRO missed significant opportunities to recover debt on her behalf. In the other case, the FRO did not enter the proper information into its computer system and continued to collect support after it was no longer owing. In both cases, the FRO admitted its errors and agreed to compensate the complainants. Once again, the FRO acknowledged the limitations of its current computer system, which lacks a true bring-forward mechanism for monitoring support obligation termination dates.

Three years ago, when I began my term of office, I indicated that I believed it was important to strengthen the relationships this office has with the various publics served by it. To do this, it is important to ensure that governmental organizations understand the role and function of my office. In the past, my office had experienced some difficulty in obtaining the cooperation of the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, particularly in matters relating to the disclosure of information. Quite understandably, the Ministry is very cautious in releasing sensitive personal health information. I personally met with senior officials at the Ministry to discuss this situation and members of my Senior Team conducted an information session for members of senior staff at the Ministry. I have reason to believe that these efforts will result in what the Acting Deputy Minister at the time referred to as a “renewed spirit of cooperation between our offices.”

I am reporting on two investigations involving the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care. One involved the Northern Health Travel Grant Program (the NHTG Program) and a resident of Northern Ontario who had to travel long distances to obtain methadone treatment for pain management. As a result of my investigation, the Ministry has undertaken steps to meet the needs of northern communities requiring access to methadone treatment services. In the second case, after receiving my investigative summary, the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care agreed to stop collection of over $200,000 and reimburse over $17,000 which had already been collected from a pharmacist.

As a result of an informal enquiry by my office, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board acknowledged that it had erred when it failed to pay interest on pension arrears and paid a complainant over $16,000 in interest owing. In another case, after receiving my investigative summary, the Board acknowledged its failure to provide adequate service and readily agreed to provide the complainant with an apology and pay her over $13,000 in compensation.

During the course of an investigation, the Ontario Rental Housing Tribunal agreed to compensate the complainants for fees they had paid and for the inconvenience caused by its error. I considered another matter relating to the Tribunal on my own motion. This investigation concerned the Tribunal’s application of the Tenant Protection Act, 1997, which permits landlords to apply for rent increases based on extraordinary increases in the cost for utilities but does not provide a corresponding right for tenants to apply for rent reduction when extraordinary utility costs no longer exist. I expressed concern about this apparent imbalance in the legislation. At the date of writing this Report, the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing had advised that it is meeting with stakeholder groups and is considering a number of options, including legislative amendment.

My office received 7,271 complaints and enquiries over the past year about correctional facilities operated by the Ministry of Public Safety and Security. Complaints from inmates continue to be the highest percentage of our caseload. I had the opportunity to make submissions to the Task Force on the Reform of Correctional Services in Ontario. The current state of Ontario’s correctional services is of great concern to me and the Government of Ontario’s commitment to reform is a welcome activity. While I recognize the government’s intention to be tough on crime, I am concerned that the government take steps to ensure that humanity and fairness remain part of the correction equation. Whatever we may think of people who are inmates or the conduct that earned them that status, once incarcerated, they are vulnerable individuals and it is the obligation of our government to ensure that they are treated humanely. As I stated to the Task Force, it is imperative that the Ministry ensure that its staff is aware of the obligations to uphold the rule of law within correctional facilities and that while incarcerated, inmates still have basic entitlements.

While the Ministry has many sound policies and procedures, my investigations have repeatedly revealed that they are not followed consistently. Inmates are affected in relation to basic entitlements such as access to fresh air, clean clothing and adequate living space. This year I conducted an investigation into the provision of fresh air (yard) at a correctional facility. Ministry policy requires that yard be offered daily. My investigation revealed that inmates in this facility had gone long periods without access to yard. In addition, inmates had not been referred to health care, as required by Ministry policy, when they had missed yard for extended periods of time. The facility undertook a number of initiatives to address this situation, which I continue to monitor closely.

I received various complaints regarding individuals who had been held in correctional facilities pending trial, who had to appear in court wearing bright orange institutional coveralls. Some individuals had also been released from court in such clothes. These uniforms stigmatize the individual and lead to prejudice in court proceedings and when the individuals are released into the community. After I contacted the Ministry regarding this situation, it responded by noting that based on the concerns that had been raised by my office, by defence counsel and some judges, it had taken steps to ensure that inmates no longer appear in these institutional uniforms in court.

In another case, an inmate claimed that he had not received a change of clothing for 30 days. According to Ministry policy, inmates are normally allowed to receive a change of clothing, including seven sets of underwear, each week. Our investigation revealed that some inmates at a correctional facility had gone up to 45 days without a change of clothing. During our investigation, the facility agreed to undertake a number of initiatives to address this matter and we continue to monitor the situation.

I also conducted an investigation on my own motion into the Ministry of Public Safety and Security’s routine practice of placing three inmates in cells with only two beds, leaving the third inmate to sleep on a mattress on the floor. This practice applies to facilities housing remanded inmates — those awaiting trial or sentencing. Overcrowding in these correctional facilities raises numerous concerns. Inmates have fewer opportunities to go outside for fresh air as correctional staff have larger numbers to supervise, living spaces are inadequate and health risks are increased for both inmates and staff. The Ministry has stated that the government’s public safety agenda has resulted in increased police activity, affecting both the courts and correctional services. It is not my role to take issue with the government’s agenda. However, I can evaluate its results on inmates. I believe that triple-bunked inmates are being punished in a way that is not demanded by their detention, the law or the Ministry’s own policy and for no reason other than the Ministry’s lack of capacity. This situation must end and after receiving my investigative summary, the Ministry advised me of steps that it is taking to address this very serious concern. I will continue to follow this issue and call for an end to overcrowding and to the practice of triple-bunking in provincial facilities housing remanded inmates.

I am particularly concerned regarding the use of segregation units for housing those with mental illness and the lack of basic services provided to these inmates. In last year’s Annual Report, I stated that, in response to my concerns about the treatment of an inmate suffering from mental illness and severe hearing loss, the Ministry had undertaken to take steps to ensure that inmates with special needs received proper placement and treatment. This year, the Ministry advised that a revised classification system will allow for more comprehensive assessment of inmates and will improve identification and placement of inmates with special needs. Inmates admitted to custody will be screened against standard criteria and those with special needs or who may require treatment will undergo a further assessment. Inmates identified through these assessment processes will then be placed in one of the Ministry’s treatment facilities.

Labour relations problems have exacerbated the conditions of inmates in provincial facilities. As you will note from some of the case stories in this report, the labour dispute earlier in this fiscal year adversely affected inmates in various ways. Staffing shortages, overcrowding, lack of recreational outlets for inmates and basic entitlements such as clean clothing and fresh air, can create pressures in the system that result in negative impacts for inmates as well as correctional staff. The labour relations climate is often reflective of the conditions of inmate confinement. Ministry staff have advised my office on several occasions that they are unable to provide staff training currently required across the organization. We have seen examples when individual facilities have not been able to recruit candidates when they are needed. I suggest that the Ministry will not see a positive change in labour relations in the corrections field until a strategic investment is made in human resources management.

This year, I continued to fulfill my personal commitment to visit correctional facilities throughout Ontario. I have visited six institutions, including jails, detention centres and a secure detention young offender facility. I found facility staff cooperative and open to responding to my many questions. Most facilities I toured were clean and a number were undergoing expansion and retrofitting. However, at one facility, I was struck by the very dismal, dank and Dickensian conditions of the segregation cells. I am encouraged by the fact that this facility is undergoing a retrofit to improve overall conditions, including those in segregation. However, it is of concern to me that such conditions have been allowed to prevail for so long. I also noted during my visits a number of correctional staff who were not wearing their facility identification badges. Inmates have a right to at least identify by number the correctional officers with whom they deal. Subsequently, senior correctional staff have issued reminders that it is Ministry policy that all staff wear their identification badges when on duty. However, this problem appears to persist in many of the facilities. Additional Ombudsman posters have been provided to facilities to ensure inmates are aware of my office and how to access it. This is a particular concern in young offender facilities, where I suggested that posters be visibly displayed in all key areas in which young offenders are housed. I will continue my commitment in the coming year to personally visit more correctional facilities across the province.

Many of the case stories contained in this report were resolved informally with individual correctional facilities and the Ministry of Public Safety and Security. The stories highlight concerns about such issues as the misconduct process, the adequacy of food service and health care. There are many dedicated staff in the correctional system and many who work with my staff to resolve inmate complaints fairly and effectively. However, the correctional system must have the necessary resources to meet its mandate of supervising inmates and creating a social environment in which inmates may make attitudinal changes necessary for their eventual and inevitable reintegration into society.

Complaints about government administration, lack of timely decision-making and lack of clarity surrounding criteria and process are common issues that come to my attention. One case that illustrates these concerns is one in which the Ministry of Transportation took four years to review and reach a final decision on an application. I do appreciate the factors which contributed to this delay and am encouraged by the Ministry’s commitment to me to clarify its policy and review its process. In this year’s Annual Report, I have included a document entitled Fairness Standards for Decision-Making by Governmental Organizations, which I hope will be a guide for organizations in their decision-making.

Considering the case stories this year, I think it is important to focus not only on the errors and omissions which led to complaints, but to acknowledge those public servants who have helped to correct situations, once they have been brought to light. This year, I had the pleasure of again presenting the Ombudsman Ontario Public Service Recognition Awards, recognizing exceptional public service in complaints resolution. The awards for 2002–2003 were received by six individuals from the following ministries: Ministry of Community, Family and Children’s Services (Family Responsibility Office), Ministry of Labour (Ontario Labour Relations Board), Ministry of Public Safety and Security (Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre, Toronto Jail), Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (two from the Ontario Student Assistance Program).

As Ombudsman, I believe that I have an obligation to promote the Ombudsman concept at home and abroad. Nationally, I have worked with the Canadian Ombudsman Association and the Forum of Canadian Ombudsman as well as the Canadian Council of Parliamentary Ombudsman. I had the privilege of being elected President of the International Ombudsman Institute at Hammamet, Tunisia during this year. The International Ombudsman Institute has 176 members from 103 countries. My office also prepared an investigative training manual for the Institute that will be used nationally and abroad. At the invitation and expense of the Government of Lebanon, I attended a seminar in Beruit on the establishment of an Ombudsman for Lebanon, during which together with other international colleagues, I encouraged the creation of an Ombudsman model for resolution of complaints against the government. My office also received a number of foreign delegations, providing an opportunity to share information about the role and function of various Ombudsman institutions.

I am very pleased with the achievements of my staff this year. I recognize that our ability to resolve complaints fairly and effectively depends on their dedication. This year all areas of the office have demonstrated a firm commitment to the values of this organization: Fairness, Accountability, Integrity and Respect.

Clare Lewis, Q.C.
Ombudsman