2020 Report: Lawsuits rise 18% to new record. Covid-19 support measures lead complaints. Migrant facility centre in Lisbon is urgent

In 2020, activity indicators were once again the highest in the history of the Ombudsman, an independent State body created in 1975 to defend people who feel aggrieved by unfair or illegal acts or omissions of the administration or other public powers or who see their fundamental rights violated.

The Ombudsman dealt with a record 11,557 new cases, as a result of a sharp annual growth in the number of complaints admitted: 18%, almost four times higher than the 5% rise observed in the previous year.  Considering the last three years, the accumulated growth in the number of complaints is 48%. Going back to 2016, the increase is 68%.

These data are contained in the Report to the Assembly of the Republic – 2020, delivered today, together with the annual report on the activity developed by the Ombudsman as the National Preventive Mechanism for Torture.

As in recent years, complaints concerning issues and entities in the sphere of Social Security were preponderant, totalling 3721, 8% more than in 2019, making up around 30% of all cases opened in 2020.

By broad category, and in line with previous years, complaints regarding Taxes and Public Employment followed, representing 11% and 8%, respectively, of the total number of new complaints opened in 2020.

The joint weight of these three main categories – Social Security, Taxes and Employment Relationship – fell from 57% to 51%, that is mainly explained by a more significant increase of complaints related to other issues, in particular cases related to Private employment relationship, Health, Foreigners’ Law, Registries and Notary Public Services, Education, Essential Public Services, Housing and Road Issues. Conversely, there was no significant decrease in any category.

Looking at the issues in greater detail, the most frequently raised in complaints in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic was precisely extraordinary support decreed in this framework (847 complaints), and this was the topic that also generated the highest number of requests for support and clarifications via the N-CID, the Telephone hotline specially dedicated to Children, Senior citizens and Persons with Disabilities, in particular via the Senior Citizen’s Line, which received 7% more calls in 2020.

This was followed by issues related to various delays attributable to the National Pensions Centre (644) and various irregularities around tax executions (619), a matter that had led the Ombudsman to order, still in 2019, an inspection of the Executive Process Sections, and in 2020 a set of recommendations were issued, only partially heeded, with the aim of urgently eliminating the practices most damaging to citizens’ rights.

At the end of 2020, we reached the conclusion that, according to the records made, the percentage of the so-called “COVID issues” made up 22% of the total problems that reached us. However, this figure does not appear in the general statistics we present. The reason for this is simple. One year’s experience showed us that the strict separation between “Covid complaints” and other complaints stemming from the pandemic outbreak was not a reliable one. Precisely because the pandemic, due to its effects, ended up affecting all sectors of life, pervasively flooding the existing communications between its various dimensions, the distinction between what was relevant from it and what did not depend on it turned out to be practically unfeasible“, frames the Ombudsman, Maria Lúcia Amaral, in the introduction note to the 2020 Report.

National Human Rights Institution/National Preventive Mechanism

In Portugal, the Ombudsman is also the National Human Rights Institution and also the NPM – National Preventive Mechanism for torture and degrading treatment, whose activity is reported in a separate report.

In the exceptional year of 2020, the NPM’s action with persons deprived of their liberty was particularly conditioned, and face-to-face visits were suspended for a good part of the year. Still, throughout 2020, 34 face-to-face visits were carried out and, during the period of confinement, contact was maintained, through videoconference, with all Educational Centres in the country.

In general, it was possible to observe that the greater restrictions on deprivation of liberty arising from the pandemic were necessary and balanced, having led, however, to a huge disruption of prison routines and work overload, evidencing the chronic shortage of human resources.

As in previous years, the Temporary Installation Centres – CIT and the Spaces Equivalent to Temporary Installation Centres, due to risk factors for the occurrence of torture and mistreatment, continued to be closely monitored.  Although migratory flows have been sharply reduced as a result of the global health context, it is urgent to create decent reception alternatives in the centre and south of the country, to avoid the perpetuation of inhuman conditions of detention, and there is an enormous urgency for the opening of a new TIC in the Lisbon area. The ceding of the space in the South area of the Caxias Prison Facility for the installation of foreign citizens who are in the custody of the Foreigners and Borders Service – SEF within the scope of coercive removal processes or of refusal of entry at the external border is still a temporary solution, with the NPM understanding that conditions must be created to accommodate citizens in a different way from a prison environment.

Cooperation of the entities addressed

Given that compliance with the duty to collaborate with the Ombudsman is also a form of respect for citizens’ rights, and in view of the exceptional year experienced by everyone in 2020, in particular by public administrations, the level of response from the entities to which the Ombudsman requested cooperation, was considered to be very positive. This was the case, for example, in the field of extraordinary measures that were taken in terms of support for employment and businesses, which were progressively improved, as well as in the dialogue with the prison world, in particular with the Directorate-General for Reinsertion and Prison Services. The collaboration of the SEF in information sharing, in contrast to previous years, should also be highlighted. Notwithstanding the good institutional relations, the Bank of Portugal still frequently fails to genuinely collaborate with the Ombudsman’s Office in resolving the problems of bank customers, as well as the Directorate of Personal Income Tax Services.

Throughout 2020, the Ombudsman addressed twelve recommendations, four of which to the Social Security administrations, and requested the Constitutional Court to review one norm. In the case of the recommendations, seven were complied with or partially complied with, while one was rejected, awaiting conclusive responses from the others.

In relation to the future of the institution, and in a way of assessment of the mandate that is about to come to an end in November of this year, Maria Lúcia Amaral reflected: “The reasons for the existence [of the Ombudsman] as an independent constitutional body will be compromised if it becomes a mere instance for the resolution of isolated problems. The Ombudsman does not serve the community merely by serving the request and the person who submits it to him. The Ombudsman only serves the community if he is capable of converting each request into a broader vision of what is going wrong and what can be improved“. 

Maria Lúcia Amaral, is the Ombudsperson since November 2017

An independent State body created in 1975, the Ombudsman defends people whose fundamental rights have been violated or who feel harmed by unjust or illegal acts or omissions on the part of the administration or other public powers. At the same time, it is a National Human Rights Institution and a National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, and must ensure that Portugal complies with the United Nations Conventions and Protocols signed in this field. It provides a free and universally accessible service. Complaints may be submitted by letter, telephone, fax, e-mail or by filling in a specific form. Maria Lúcia Amaral has been the Ombudsman since November 2017.