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Public Defender of Rights > History of the Institution of Ombudsman

History and Background of the Institution of Ombudsman

The word “ombudsman” can be traced back to the ancient expressions “umbup” (power and authority) or eventually to the Swedish word “ombud”, describing a person acting as a representative, with authority to act on behalf of the others.

The post of the first “true” ombudsman was established in the 18th century by Swedish King Charles XII (if we discount some activities of a similar nature of Roman tribunes or medieval emperors). From 1713 the duty of this ombudsman was to mainly ensure the correct conduct of royal officials. The institution of the ombudsman was firmly incorporated into the Swedish constitution from 1809. It was defined as the parliamentary body supervising judges, government and other officials, and ensuring their compliance with laws and other legal regulations. The embedding of the ombudsman in the constitution was completed by a further law specifying in greater detail the scope of his activities and his legal authority.

The institution of the ombudsman developed and grew most significantly in the 20th century. Ombudsman institutions were on the increase especially in the period after the Second World War when almost a hundred of them were established. The institutions took varied forms and modifications depending on the historical, political and social background of the given country. The names used to refer to the ombudsman institutions may, of course, differ. For example in Spain it is “defensor del pueblo”, in France, “médiateur”, in Austria “Volksanwaltschaft”, in Poland “Rzecznik praw obywatelskich”, in Romania “Avocatul Popolurui”, and in the Czech Republic “veřejný ochránce práv”.

The basic models of the ombudsman institution can be explained with regard to the way in which they are established. There is the so-called parliamentary ombudsman, elected by the parliament or similar law-making authority. In such a case parliament also represents the body to which the parliamentary ombudsman reports. (This is the case in a majority of countries).

Another type of the ombudsman institution, however, not very common, is the so-called Executive Ombudsman, chosen by and reporting to the government. There is also an ombudsman institution that represents a combination of the two previously mentioned types.

The general ombudsman deals with all aspects and activities of state administration. A specialised ombudsman deals with only a specific area of state administration (such as prisons, the army, protection of children, protection of data, etc.) The ombudsmen can either be centralised in one place or have a localised scope of authority (e.g. Italy, Switzerland).

The Czech Public Defender of Rights represents the majority type of ombudsman institution. He is elected by parliament and is centralised. Such a type of institution currently operates in almost all of the EU countries.

The range of powers of the ombudsman and the definition of his/her legitimate authority differs in various countries. Generally it can be defined as a person authorised by the state to resolve complaints of the individuals against state administration or on his/her own initiative to detect inefficiencies, malpractice or violations of the law.

The Czech Public Defender of Rights

JUDr. Otakar Motejl - the first Czech ombudsman

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