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Thursday, September 28, 2006

"Difficult" complainants in the spotlight

Deputy NSW Ombudsman, Chris Wheeler presented a paper on “Dealing With “Difficult” Complainants and Applicants” at the Crown Solicitor’s Office Seminar on Issues in Administrative Law on 20 September.

The paper provides an update on an Australia wide Ombudsman project that is looking at better ways to deal with people who can be unreasonable, obsessive, overly demanding or persistent, rude or aggressive. Research and expert input is providing new insights into better ways to deal with this type of conduct. More details are expected by the end of the year.

The paper also includes analysis of privacy and FOI matters that have gone to the NSW Administrative Decisions Tribunal. Over the last three years two applicants were parties involved in 26% of the privacy review decisions in 2004, 60% in 2005, and 35% for this year to date.

One FOI applicant has been the subject of 18 decisions, and of the more than 70 FOI matters in 2005-2006, over 60% concern review applications by a total of 9 applicants. The Appeal Panel has made 13 decisions in this time – 9 involving 3 parties the subject of multiple decisions of the Tribunal.

Coincidentally, the ADT in a decision published recently in University of NSW v Curtin and McGuirk (2006) NSWADT 271, has imposed cost orders on an applicant (Curtin) and another person attending a planning conference with him (McGuirk) because of unacceptable conduct and disruption that forced the President to terminate the conference.

There is obviously a significant cost for the ADT and government agencies generally in dealing with demanding and persistent complainants and applicants. However as the Deputy Ombudsman acknowledged, there is a fine line between misuse of public resources and pursuit of legitimate personal and public interests.

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