Petri Jääskeläinen, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, presented the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s Annual Report 2020 to Anu Vehviläinen, Speaker of Parliament, on Thursday 17 June.
Like the previous year, a record number of complaints were received in 2020, in total 7,059. This is around 800 (13%) more than in 2019 (6,267).
COVID-19 impact on the activities of the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman
The situation caused by COVID-19 was also unpredictable and unprecedented in the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman and in the oversight of legality. It resulted in major changes in the handled issues and working methods. From the beginning of the epidemic, the Ombudsman received complaints about the activities of the authorities. The epidemic also gave grounds for clarifying matters on the Ombudsman’s initiative. During the year under review, nearly one thousand (953) cases of oversight of legality were processed that were somehow related to the COVID-19 epidemic. The issues were very diverse and included questions related to almost all administrative branches.
Ombudsman as guardian of the rule of law
In his address in the Annual Report, Parliamentary Ombudsman Jääskeläinen states that the Ombudsman has a key role in upholding and promoting the rule of law. This is due to the fact that the Ombudsman's duties as the supreme overseer of legality are linked to all key elements of the rule of law. They include the legality of the exercise of public authority, an individual’s fundamental rights and freedoms and an independent judicial system.
Oversight of legality and overseeing the realisation of fundamental rights are the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s tasks laid down in the Constitution of Finland. The Parliamentary Ombudsman’s activities also support the independence of authorities in courts and judicial system. The Parliament’s Constitutional Law Committee has seen the Ombudsman’s activities to be a part of Finland's constitutional identity.
For these reasons, safeguarding the rule of law is linked to safeguarding the viability of the Ombudsman’s work. To do so, it essential that tasks closely related to the legal status of individuals are not excluded from the Ombudsman's competence and that the Ombudsman's independence is not jeopardised.
The rule of law has been carefully cared for in Finland, but there is also reason to prepare for other kinds of circumstances.
About restricting fundamental rights and exceptions to them
In her address, Deputy-Ombudsman Maija Sakslin examines how the coronavirus pandemic has challenged our system of fundamental rights. Typically, rights are under various threats during crises, but the measures used to combat the threats may also endanger the implementation of the rights. Rights of the entire population have been restricted in an unprecedented way during the coronavirus pandemic. Some restrictions have even been considered to violate human dignity. In-depth restrictions have been targeted at almost all fundamental rights and the rights of all people.
During the coronavirus pandemic, it has been widely agreed that public authorities have the obligation to protect the life and health of the population and therefore also the obligation to safeguard sufficient capacity in medical care. From the point of view of the system of fundamental rights, this is an extremely weighty ground. However, is it more difficult to reach agreement on whether the measures taken are necessary and in accordance with the principle of proportionality.
If the focus is on the successful protection of life and promotion of health achieved through restrictions on fundamental rights or exceptions to them, the picture provided is very different from when the focus is on the restrictions imposed on the rights and liberties and their impact on individuals and society.
It is too early to make a final assessment of how our system of fundamental rights has survived the coronavirus pandemic and state of emergency. However, a cause for concern is the number of observations made in the oversight of legality, which reveal that public powers have been used to halt the spread of the virus in ways that restrict fundamental rights without the powers to do it.
The Ombudsman as constitutional overseer of legality
Deputy-Ombudsman Pasi Pölönen examines the processing of constitutional issues in the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s oversight of legality. Despite the advance review of the constitutionality of the laws, there are situations in which the Ombudsman should intervene as a guardian of the rule of law. Most typically, the law’s application is considered to sometimes lead to problematic results in terms of fundamental and human rights. At times, the overseer of legality issues statements on performing public administrative duties outside the official organisation, from the perspective of section 124 of the Constitution of Finland.
Sometimes it can be a case of detecting completely new types of constitutional issues. This was the case in Deputy-Ombudsman Pölönen’s decision concerning the legal basis of the state’s Senate Properties’ operations. The constitutional and other legal issues relating to it partially were also identified in a parliamentary hearing. The Parliament required the Government to submit a comprehensive report on Senate Properties, its subsidiary Defence Properties and the Senate Group as a whole by the beginning of the autumn session of 2022.
The Annual Report of the Parliamentary Ombudsman was published on 17 June 2021 on the Ombudsman’s websites at www.oikeusasiamies.fi and www.ombudsman.fi.
Further information is available from Secretary General Matti Marttunen, tel. 432 3333.