The office of the European Ombudsman was established in 1992 by the Maastricht Treaty. Its purpose is to investigate complaints made by citizens and people living in the European Union (EU) of maladministration in the institutions and bodies of the EU. They are also responsible for proactively looking into broader systemic issues and launching their own investigations.
"Maladministration" means bad administration and happens if an institution does not respect:
- Fundamental rights
- Laws or rules
- The principles of good administration
Some examples of maladministration are:
- Abuse of power
- Lack or refusal of information and
- Unnecessary delay
The role of the European Ombudsman is to safeguard the fundamental rights of people living in the EU by promoting open and accountable administrations within the EU. The role of the Ombudsman is complementary to that of the courts. A finding of maladministration by the Ombudsman does not automatically mean that something illegal has happened.
Institutions and bodies that fall within the European Ombudsman's jurisdiction include the following:
- The European Commission
- The Council of the European Union
- The European Parliament
- The Court of Auditors
- The Court of Justice (except in its judicial role)
- The European Economic and Social Committee
- The Committee of the Regions
- The European Central Bank
- The European Investment Bank
- The European Personnel Selection Office
- The European Anti-Fraud Office
- The European Police Office (Europol)
- Any other European Union body
Citizens and people living in the EU have a right to access any document held by an EU institution, with some exceptions. If the institution claims that an exception applies to a document you have requested you can apply to the European Ombudsmen to appeal this decision and give you access to the document. The Ombudsmen has a fast-track in place and aims to give a decision in these cases within 40 days.
The European Ombudsman cannot deal with complaints concerning national, regional or local authorities of member states, even when the complaints are about European Union law. If the European Ombudsman is unable to investigate your complaint, they will do their best to advise you of another body that could help. The European Network of Ombudsmen was established in 1996 to connect the European Ombudsmen with national and regional ombudsmen and make sure that complaints are dealt with at an appropriate level.
You can read more about Ireland’s national Ombudsman, who deals with complaints about government departments, local authorities, the Health Service Executive (HSE) and other public bodies in Ireland.
Who can complain to the European Ombudsman?
If you are a citizen of a member state of the European Union or are living in a member state, you are entitled to make a complaint to the European Ombudsman. Businesses, associations or other bodies with a registered office in a member state may also lodge a complaint with the European Ombudsman.
Complaints to the European Ombudsman are free of charge.
How to make a complaint
You can submit a complaint online, by post or by fax. To submit a complaint online you must create an account on their website. To make a complaint by letter you can download the complaint form and write a letter explaining your complaint. You should also include copies of relevant correspondence. You can post or fax the completed form and letter using the contact information which is listed under Further information.
A complaint must be made within two years of the date when you first learned about the issue. You do not need to be personally affected by the maladministration.
Before making a complaint with the Ombudsman you must have tried to resolve the matter with the institution concerned directly.
The European Ombudsman will examine your complaint and you will be informed of the outcome of their investigation.
The European Ombudsman does not deal with matters that are currently before a court or that have already been settled by a court.
The European Ombudsman’s website has an interactive checklist you can use to see if your complaint meets their criteria for an issue they can address.
Once the European Ombudsman receives your complaint they will check whether they can investigate it. If they determine that your issue falls within their remit then they will open an inquiry you will be informed of this by letter.
The Ombudsman will first forward the complaint to the relevant institution and request an opinion. The EU institutions are required to supply the Ombudsman with any information they request. The Ombudsman may inspect documents, conduct interviews and/or carry out an inspection at the institution. They may also ask you for more information about your complaint.
Once the Ombudsman has finished their inquiry there are three possible outcomes:
- No Maladministration – the Ombudsman determines that the institution acted correctly
- A simple issue – in many cases the institution itself acts to settle the matter during the inquiry, or the Ombudsman is able to achieve a friendly solution that satisfies both you and the institution.
- Maladministration – if the Ombudsman finds that the institution acted incorrectly and cannot get the parties involved to agree on a solution, then they will make an official recommendation of what the institution should do. If the institution does not accept the recommendation then the Ombudsman can make a special report to the European Parliament. The Ombudsman’s decisions are not legally binding.
Where to apply
If you have a complaint that is not covered by the Ombudsman one of these bodies may be able to help you.