Ombudsman Annual Report Released

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Nova Scotia Ombudsman William A. Smith said the year 2020-2021 has been “like no other” for his Office, as it adapted to the new normal of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Mr. Smith released his annual report today, June 29, 2021. He said the Ombudsman’s office, like other services and businesses “has had to modify its approach to address changing restrictions and evolving needs.

“Nova Scotians have mentally, physically, and financially been impacted by COVID-19 and will continue to be for the foreseeable future,” Mr. Smith says in the report. “With that in mind our oversight responsibilities have never been more important.”

The Office also took the time this year to look back at 50 years of service. The Office of the Ombudsman was established in 1971 and has had an evolving mandate since then. As the Office grew, so did the level of service delivery. Mr. Smith said that while the Office took a notably subdued approach to celebrating its 50th anniversary, it also took the opportunity to highlight some achievements.

During the year under review, a noteworthy COVID-related case investigated by the Office involved the delivery of a grant designed to relieve small business impacted by the Pandemic. The complainant was concerned their application for the grant would be denied on the grounds that they were being asked to provide tax documents which they did not posses.

The Office made inquiries to try and determine responsibility for the program and who the complainant should contact to resolve their concerns. While the Ombudsman Representative was in the process of making inquiries, the complainant was informed by the program administrators that their application had been denied.

An Ombudsman Representative connected with an official in the Executive Council Office who agreed to review the application. That review found that a mistake had been made in how the business was classified. The business had been deemed to be a food truck, which would not have been eligible for the grant. In fact, it was a restaurant, which was eligible.

The Office also investigated a disclosure of wrongdoing complaint under the Public Interest Disclosure of Wrongdoing Act brought forward by a group of individuals associated with Island Employment, an employment development and worker support agency in Cape Breton. The disclosure involved several allegations related to how the agency was spending its program funds.

The investigation entailed scrutiny of hundreds of pages of documents such as spending records and expense claims covering a four-year period. Multiple interviews with managers and staff at the agency, and officials from Labour and Advanced Education (LAE) were carried out. The investigation found merit in three of the four allegations made. Recommendations for significant changes were issued to both the Department and the agency itself. The Department has assured the Office of the Ombudsman that it is making plans to implement them. The Island Employment agency itself accepted all recommendations unconditionally.

Over the years, the Office of the Ombudsman has investigated numerous complaints involving the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission (NSHRC). As recently as four years ago, our Office produced a report which was critical of both the NSHRC’s processes and its outcomes. Several reforms including amendments to the Human Rights Act were recommended. A central criticism of this Office at the time was that investigations by the NSHRC often lacked sufficient discipline and depth.

More recently an investigation was launched into a complaint against the NSHRC from a Nova Scotia lawyer. That complaint was that the NSHRC had not properly investigated a previous complaint the lawyer had made alleging discrimination on the part of the Nova Scotia Barrister’s Society (NSBS).The investigation identified multiple aspects of that previous complaint which, in the judgement of Ombudsman Representatives, had not been thoroughly examined by the NSHRC.

Two reports were issued on the matter, encouraging the NSHRC to reconsider the complaint. The NSHRC hired a private lawyer and member of the NSBS to review the NSHRC’s investigation. The lawyer concluded that the NSHRC’s investigation had been appropriate and that the rejection of the complaint by the NSHRC was justified.

While the Office of the Ombudsman has the legislated right to investigate and make recommendations regarding the NSHRC’s process and practices, it is not empowered to overturn a Commission decision. The NSHRC ultimately declined to do so.

During this fiscal year, several other complaints were received that involved the NSHRC, primarily involving communication and delays in moving forward with investigations. During those investigations, the Ombudsman’s Office discovered that the NSHRC was experiencing operational challenges, including file management and staffing challenges. Based on that information and previous investigations, the Office opened an own motion investigation to monitor the situation. An own motion investigation is triggered by the Office itself, but typically is based on a pattern of complaints against an agency or other government entity.

The total number of new matters received by the Office for the fiscal year was down. In  part the decrease reflected a continuing decline in complaints and meetings with youth in custody, as the youth criminal justice system continues to evolve away from custodial sentencing for young offenders. The reduced number could also be attributable to the COVID-19 Pandemic itself, as the public’s interaction with government decreased or services reduced.

A significant portion of the work completed by the Office is through outreach. Outreach can take many forms, from an information booth at a Seniors’ Expo, to visiting youth in care, or providing formal presentations to government employees and community groups. In response to limits on in-person events, Ombudsman Representatives attended virtual events whenever possible. However, many of the events the Office would typically attend, such as seniors’ or youth expos, were cancelled due to the Pandemic

Many complaints settled by the Office are handled through informal means. In 2020-2021, a significant majority of the cases resolved by the Office was achieved through Administrative Review Investigations which tend to be shorter and less complex. The Office received 462 new matters that were addressed through the Administrative Review process, which has a typical review period of one to four weeks. Formal reviews are more demanding and intricate and can take months, occasionally even a year or more, to resolve. The Office considered three new matters as Formal Investigations during the year under review, while several other such reviews from the previous year remained active.

The Ombudsman Youth Council (OYC) has now entered its third year having conducted recruitment between November and December 2020. The OYC consists of thirteen youth from across the province ranging from 12 to 19 years of age. The report notes that going forward, monthly and “as needed” meetings are being conducted virtually.

On May 20, of this year, Premier Iain Rankin announced that William A. Smith has been reappointed for a second five-year term as the Ombudsman for Nova Scotia. His appointment took effect on June 1, 2021.