Office of the University Ombudsperson

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Terms of Reference

1. The Role of the Office of the Ombudsperson

The Office of the Queen’s University Ombudsperson is an institutional Office, advising about and/or referring members of the University community to university policies and procedures, most often in response to complaints or concerns about fair treatment or outcomes determined by university authorities, but also in response to systemic matters. The Office of the Ombudsperson (the “Office” or the “OUO”) is an important resource to the Queen’s community in helping students, alumni, parents, staff and faculty understand policies and procedures within the university and in the identification of opportunities for improvement in policies and procedures. However, the Office is not the sole source of support for community members, nor should it be relied upon by students or any other community member for representation. The OUO is a resource, not an advocate.

A key principle guiding the role of the OUO is impartiality. The Ombudsperson and all staff working within the OUO are precluded from acting as advocates. The Office has no case management role. Rather, it facilitates fair processes within the university.
University policies contain appeal procedures designed to be accessible to users and place those seeking relief in the best position to act as their own advocates, or to obtain their own advisors or counsel.

The central role of the OUO in the university is to help ensure procedural fairness in university decision-making. The OUO provides general advice to community members about their rights and responsibilities and provides guidance on the procedures to follow. Where such information exists in University offices or publications, the OUO refers enquirers to these sources, emphasizing that individual community members have a responsibility for initiating the appropriate actions and taking the required steps to pursue their matter. The Office also proactively reviews policies, procedures and decision-making frameworks of the university and identifies opportunities for systemic improvement.

In usual practice, the OUO’s involvement in matters occurs only after an individual has exhausted internal avenues of redress. The OUO does not have any decision-making authority and cannot overturn any university decision. However, the OUO can consider complaints, make informal enquiries, carry out formal reviews, draw conclusions and recommend changes to university policies and procedures.

2. Appointment & Governance

The Ombudsperson is appointed by the Queen’s University Secretary (“Secretary”) on the advice of a selection committee chaired by the Chairperson of the Board of Trustees Audit and Risk Committee. The Ombudsperson is accountable to the Board through the Audit and Risk Committee, as well as to the Senate and serves to advise and assist these bodies by addressing complaints involving the university and identifying risks and systemic problems that may require attention. The Secretary is the administrator responsible for the OUO. For day-to-day operations, the Ombudsperson may seek advice from and directly consult with the Secretary. The Secretary will also chair the Ombudsperson Advisory Committee (see Appendix “A” for Terms of Reference). The Ombudsperson shall meet at least twice annually with this Advisory Committee to seek advice and receive feedback in review of the work of the OUO and the functioning of the Office within the university.

3. Functions of the Ombudsperson

The functions of the Ombudsperson and the OUO are largely but not exclusively complaint-driven. The Ombudsperson may consider any matter referred by a university authority. The Ombudsperson considers complaints from members of the university:

  1. when they have been unable to resolve their concerns through the usual processes;
  2. when they have encountered unreasonable delays in the consideration of their concerns through the usual processes; or
  3. when they are unable, because of other factors that are reasonable in the circumstances, to determine or to follow the usual processes.

Except in the above circumstances, the OUO shall not normally consider complaints that are in the process of being dealt with through established processes, or that could reasonably be dealt with through established processes.

The Ombudsperson, as an observer or member of various university committees and working groups as well as in their individual capacity, also works to identify opportunities to improve the consistent application of policies and procedures and ensure fairness in decision-making for all members of the university community.

3.1 Addressing Complaints.

With respect to complaints, the Ombudsperson has the authority and responsibility to:

  1. Investigate, in an impartial fashion, complaints from members of the university community that arise against the university or against anyone in the university exercising decision-making authority, or to initiate a systemic review of decision-making structures. All university members are required to respond promptly and fully participate in any investigation or review conducted by the Ombudsperson.
  2. Inquire about timing and promptness of decisions affecting members of the university community;
  3. Review procedures and policies used to reach decisions affecting community members;
  4. Identify any gaps and inadequacies in existing university policies and procedures that might jeopardize the principles of fairness and bring those to the attention of the responsible authority. It is not the function of the Ombudsperson to devise rules and procedures, but to make recommendations; and
  5. To act as a mediator, where appropriate, to assist in resolving issues.

The Ombudsperson may refuse to take up any matter where: (i) the Ombudsperson concludes intervention of the OUO would be inappropriate; (ii) the OUO has no jurisdiction regarding the complaint; or, (iii) where the Ombudsperson determines that the grounds for the complaint are frivolous or vexatious.

3.2 Policy/Procedural Review and Outreach.

Because the OUO assists the university community with understanding policies and procedures and navigating systems within the university, the OUO has a role in making recommendations to university officials about changes to existing policies and procedures and about the creation of new policies and procedures. While the OUO does not create new policies and procedures, their experience addressing complaints about systems may inform policy/procedural development. As the OUO is largely a resource about policies and procedures, the OUO is responsible for creating guides, training materials and other educational tools to assist university community members in understanding and exercising their rights and responsibilities. The Ombudsman should promote examination of, and discussions regarding, matters of institution-wide concern related to policy and procedural consistency, gaps and fairness.

3.3 Authority to Act.

The Ombudsperson may require information from the university or from anyone in the university exercising decision-making authority. In order to fulfill the function of the Office, the Ombudsperson shall be entitled to access all university files, records and information under the university’s care, custody or control as required for the performance of the Ombudsperson’s functions. Requests for information from the Ombudsperson must be given priority by every employee and contractor of the university.

3.4 Guiding Principles.

Services provided by the OUO are founded on a number of general principles including independence, impartiality, and confidentiality. The OUO shall act impartially, acting neither as an advocate for individual members of the university community nor as a defender of the university, but rather seeking procedural fairness. The services of the OUO are provided on a confidential basis. The Office holds all initial consultations in confidence, subject to applicable university policies. However, where the Ombudsperson believes there is imminent risk to a person or group, confidential information may be disclosed in order to prevent harm. Where a member of the university community decides to ask that the OUO deal with a complaint, the name of the complainant and the substance of the complaint is disclosed only on a ‘need to know’ basis, to allow the OUO to investigate, consult about, and/or seek a response to the complaint.

3.5 Functions Precluded.

Although authorized to function in the widest possible context and with minimal constraints, the OUO shall not:

  1. Act as the advocate of anyone during any proceeding or during the investigation of a complaint;
  2. Make university policy or replace established legislative or judicial procedures, although any or all of these may be investigated or questioned by the OUO and the OUO may make recommendations appropriate for the improvement and efficient functioning of such policies and procedures;
  3. Intervene in matters that could be the subject of a grievance procedure under a collective agreement;
  4. Be a voting member of any committee, hiring committee (except regarding OUO staff) or council of the university or any student association or any other decision- making body on campus although the Ombudsperson may act as a consultant to individuals and committees;
  5. Provide evidence to a university decision-making body. The university shall take reasonable steps/or endeavour to protect members of the OUO from appearing in front of any decision-making body; or
  6. Accept notice on behalf of the university. The Office in not an office of record; advising the Office of a situation is not a substitute for advising the appropriate authority.

4. Reporting

The Ombudsperson shall make a written annual report to the Board of Trustees and Senate, and through them to the university community, as well as such other special reports as may be required from time to time. In addition, the Ombudsperson shall, provide interim written reports to the Audit and Risk Committee on a schedule it determines.

5. Files

The OUO shall maintain records of complaints, findings and recommendations. These records shall be for the exclusive use of the Ombudsperson and his/her staff in fulfillment of these functions and duties as assigned. The Ombudsperson shall determine a records retention schedule consistent with the university’s record retention policy and in consultation with Queen’s University’s Chief Privacy Officer.

6. Complaints Regarding the Ombudsperson

If a member of the Queen’s community believes that the Ombudsperson has committed a procedural or substantive violation of these terms of reference with respect to any matter to which the member has been a party, they may submit a written complaint, detailing the alleged violation to the Secretary of Queen’s University for investigation and recommended action. The Secretary will inform the member of the Queen’s community of the result once determined.