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Authorities still unlawfully charging for telephone advice

Parliamentary Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen has given the Ministry of Justice a reprimand on the ground that telephone advice services are still not provided free of charge by all of the authorities  belonging to the Ministry's sector of administration.

He has also issued reprimands to the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Metsähallitus (a state enterprise that administers state-owned land and water areas) for the same reason.

In addition, he has expressed criticism of the Kouvola group of parishes of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church for charging for its telephone advice.

Several complaints had been made to the Ombudsman about charges for these services. The Administrative Procedure Act requires authorities to provide advice free.

Reprimand to Ministry of Justice already the second

The telephone solution adopted by the Ministry of Justice's administrative sector is based on a premium number. According to a report supplied by the Ministry, its administrative sector includes a total of 120 offices and agencies which do not use numbers for which no additional charge is made.

It is possible to call authorities or officials through switchboards, but these are often congested.  A client wishing to contact an official taking care of a matter often finds it quicker to dial a number for which an additional charge is made. In addition, it has happened that only the direct premium number of the official dealing with a matter is mentioned in letters sent out by offices. There are shortcomings with regard to the contact particulars given on Internet sites and in phone directories as well as to stating the fees charged for calls.

Thus the telephone advice services provided by the Ministry's sector of administration still fail in practice to meet the requirement that they be free.

In August 2010 the Ministry appointed a working group to develop a telephone numbering system for its sector of administration. It is tasked with planning a system that will ensure citizens can receive advice and answers connected with administrative matters at the normal rates charged for phone calls.

The Ombudsman finds the objectives set for the working party positive, but notes that the measures taken by the Ministry in the matter are badly behind schedule. The Administrative Procedure Act with its requirement that telephone advice be provided free entered into force already at the beginning of 2004. The first statement of position on the matter was made by the supreme overseer of legality in summer 2005. On 21.12.2007 the Ombudsman issued a reprimand to the Ministry for its delay in making the services free of charge. On 23.5.2008 he asked all ministries to ensure that the telephone services within their sectors of administration were provided free.

It was only about five years after the Ombudsman's first stance on telephone charges and about two and a half years after he issued a reprimand to the Ministry of Justice that the Ministry appointed a working group with objectives corresponding to what is required of authorities with respect to not charging for telephone advice services.

The Ombudsman has asked the Ministry to inform him, by 25.2.2011, of what progress has been made in making telephone services in its sector of administration cost free.

Reprimands also to Metsähallitus and the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry

The only number that Metsähallitus has is, in practice, a premium one. It argued that its tasks include only quite few administrative ones that involve exercise of public power. The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry  likewise invoked this argument and stated that, because only a small part of Metsähallitus's tasks are of the kind performed by an authority, the telephone service contracts it has concluded involve premium charges in accordance with commercial principles.

The Ombudsman points out that the requirement enshrined in the Administrative Procedure Act that telephone advice services be provided free of charge is not limited only to tasks involving the exercise of public power; it also extends to service tasks performed by authorities and their actual administrative functions. Thus Metsähallitus has a duty to provide free-of-charge telephone advice in transactions with clients concerning all of its public administrative tasks.

The Ombudsman notes that although Metsähallitus admitted that it had been aware of the Ombudsman's position that telephone services must be free of charge ever since this was first pointed out in 2005, it has still not taken measures to put its activities in this respect on a lawful footing.

Under the Constitution, the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry is responsible for the appropriate operation of its sector of administration. Metsähallitus is a state-owned commercial undertaking operating within this sector. Despite the Ombudsman's representations to the Ministry as long ago as 23.5.2008 and its declaration in response to a complaint that it would draw Metsähallitus's attention to the necessity to provide cost-free services, the telephone service in question still does not meet this requirement. Thus also the Ministry has neglected its duty.

The Ombudsman has asked the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and Metsähallitus to inform him, by 25.2.2011, of what measures his decisions have given rise to.

Requirement of cost-free telephone services applies also to parishes of the church

The Ecclesiastical Act requires that when an administrative matter is being dealt with by a church authority, the provisions of the Administrative Procedure Act and of the Act on Electronic Services and Communication in the Public Sector with respect to telephone services must be complied with. The former Act requires that advice be provided free.

Numbers that are charged at premium rates were stated for the Kouvola group of parishes' exchange and all of the services provided by the group as well as for its staff members. In the assessment of the Ombudsman, the group's telephone service does not meet the requirements of good administration and cost-free advisory services and is therefore unlawful insofar as it involves the provision of advice or answering enquiries connected with the handling of administrative matters.

This decision by the Ombudsman represents the first time that he has adopted a position on a group of parishes providing a telephone service free of charge. Therefore he considers it sufficient to inform the Kouvola group that its charging for this service is unlawful. He has sent a copy of his decision to the Ecclesiastical Board and asked it to pass on information about it to the other parishes and groups.

Additional info will be provided by Legal Adviser Ulla-Maija Lindström, tel. +358(0)9 432 3355.