Judiciary Ombudsman: Solving Problems in the Courts

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

"Help! I have a problem. I need assistance." Almost everyone entering the superior court in Newark, New Jersey, needs some type of assistance. Sometimes I wonder what would happen, if upon their arrival, a court employee greeted them by declaring, "Welcome to your court where we treat you fairly, mete out justice speedily, and help you to resolve your disputes satisfactorily." This greeting would paraphrase the mission of the New Jersey courts and announce, literally from the door, a commitment to make that mission a reality. (1) What would be the public's reaction to such a declaration? Incredulity? Suspicion? Relief? Gratitude? Respect?

Based on what we know about public opinion of the justice system we can imagine a combination of all of these responses. (2) The twenty-first century American public wants a legal system that instead of merely moving cases along in a conveyor belt-like manner, enables people to participate in a dignified, meaningful, and expeditious process that helps to address their problems. (3) Recent innovations in court system design and management, such as problem-solving and user-friendly courts, are helping to achieve these goals. (4)

In response to public opinion and citizen requests, the New Jersey judiciary has developed an ombudsman program to help court users effectively participate in the system and redress problems when they occur? This article describes the program and its relevance for courts seeking to be more responsive to the public.

I. WHAT IS AN OMBUDSMAN?

A. Definition

The term "ombudsman," generally recognized as originating from the Swedish word for representative, designates an office that investigates and resolves complaints about the functioning of an entity. (6) It has as its basic goal the improvement of administration. The ombudsman's most important feature is that it has the means to "protect individual rights against the excesses of public and private bureaucracies." (7)

The idea (8) of an ombudsman for the New Jersey courts grew out of discussions about the experiences of women and minorities in the courts. The court's Task Force on Minority Concerns proposed the idea to the New Jersey Supreme Court in an interim report about the treatment of minority groups in the New Jersey courts. (9) The Task Force's final report included a series of recommendations to improve overall treatment of minorities in the courts. The Task Force found that the public wanted an office that could provide more information about the justice system and receive and investigate complaints about abuses in the judicial process. (10) This recommendation defined the New Jersey Judiciary Ombudsman Program and laid the foundation for its objectives.

B. Models

As a general matter, there are three kinds of ombudsman: classical, organizational, and advocate. (11) A classical ombudsman position is usually established by legislation that creates a position to handle complaints against the government. An organizational ombudsman can work in the public or private sectors, such as universities, hospitals, and private companies. This type of ombudsman generally handles the complaints of constituents, such as students, patients, employees, consultants, or contractors. Similarly, an advocate ombudsman may work in the public, or private sectors, serving as an advocate on behalf of specific categories of consumers and potential complainants.

A recent proliferation of ombudsman offices has produced variations in standards and procedures. Some offices, with other names, closely fulfill established ombudsman criteria while other ombudsman offices may stray from established standards. A recent report outlining the standards for the establishment and operation of ombudsman offices acknowledges that pragmatic reasons may prevent immediate conformity with established standards but nonetheless urges compliance. …