2021 Report: Cases handled rise 6% to a new high. Social Protection leads complaints and Health registers strong growth. Reception of foreigners maintains serious deficiencies

In 2021, a record volume of 12,219 new cases were processed, as a result of a 6% annual increase in the number of complaints admitted. Based on 2017, the beginning of the first mandate of the current Ombudsman, Maria Lúcia Amaral, the accumulated growth in the number of new complaints processed is 57%.

A new high of 21 259 requests addressed to the Ombudsman were also recorded, including 2 865 calls received on the telephone lines especially dedicated to Children, Senior Citizens and Persons with Disabilities (CID-Core).

Activity indicators were once again the highest in the history of this independent State body, created in 1975 to defend people who feel they have been harmed by unfair or illegal acts or omissions on the part of the administration or other public powers, or whose fundamental rights have been violated.

These data are contained in the Report to the Assembly of the Republic – 2021 [in Portuguese only] delivered today, together with the annual report on the activity developed by the Ombudsman as the National Preventive Mechanism [in Portuguese only] for torture.

Issues related to Social Security, and the performance of its Institutes, continued to be the main subject of complaints, although their relative weight decreased from 30% to 27%, the same having occurred in the weight of complaints related to Taxation (from 13% to 10% of the total). Public Employment Relations, while maintaining the same proportion as the previous year, is now accompanied by Economic-Financial matters, which showed strong growth in their relative weight (rising from 5% in 2020 to 8% in 2021).

Taking a closer look, we can conclude that 2021 continued to be marked by the COVID-19 pandemic that affected many sectors of activity, workers, families and companies, with repercussions on the volume of complaints processed in relation to essential public services, transport, housing, registry services and notary public services and, in particular, in relation to diverse modalities for attribution of support, which explains the sharp rise in the number of complaints falling within the scope of Economic and Financial Issues.

There was also a strong growth trend in complaints related to health issues (32% increase for a total of 727), largely due to difficulties in procedures for issue of the medical certificate for multi-use disabilities, a situation that had led the Ombudsman to make a Recommendation to the Government in the previous year. It should be emphasized that issues related to health were those that determined the highest number of contacts made to the Elderly People’s Line, exceeding, for the first time, those related to social responses.

Another highlight is the increase in complaints regarding parental protection and family benefits, which led to the opening of more than double the number of cases compared to 2020 (426 against 183). This significant increase was due, on the one hand, to the change in the family allowance income bracket and, on the other hand, to the delay in attributing prenatal family allowance and child benefit, which led to intervention by the Ombudsman.

Throughout 2021, the Ombudsman addressed fourteen Recommendations and submitted two requests for abstract review of constitutionality to the Constitutional Court (see here and here).

In the year under review, it is also important to draw attention to the publication of a set of three studies, called “Pandemic Notebooks”, which sought to understand the impact of the pandemic in three fundamental dimensions of collective life. The first study focuses on the general topic of education and is based on information obtained during the first phase of classroom suspension, which took place in 2020. The second focuses on people experiencing homelessness, and the third reflects on rule of law issues during the period between March 2020 and April 2021.

National Preventive Mechanism

In Portugal, the Ombudsman operates, since 2013, as the NPM- National Preventive Mechanism for torture and degrading treatment, whose activity is reported in an autonomous Report. In 2021, the NPM maintained its priority in carrying out visits to prisons, educational centers (EC) and temporary installation centers and similar spaces (CIT/EECIT). Having been able to resume its face-to-face activity, it carried out 50 monitoring visits. At the end of the year, all prisons in the country had been visited at least once in the previous 24 months, and all ECs had been visited between April and November 2021.

Similarly to the assessment made in 2020, the NPM considers that the restrictions adopted in the context of deprivation of liberty in order to prevent and mitigate the pandemic were appropriate and proportional, and notes the fact that there were no deaths related to COVID-19. The way in which the vaccination process took place, as well as the reinforcement of psychiatric and psychological care that, as a rule, occurred in the prison system, should also be positively highlighted. It is, however, with dismay that the NPM concludes that in 2021 there were no significant developments regarding the detention of foreign citizens in Portugal, and the issues identified in 2020 remain, namely the need to create a real CIT in the Lisbon area, as well as the standardization of procedures followed in the different places of detention of foreign citizens.

With regard to the future of the institution, and reflecting the internal restructuring that has taken place within the Ombudsman’s Office, Maria Lúcia Amaral said:

“An informal justice body which everyone can access free of charge should be conducted in such a way as to give preference to those who effectively need it most. An institution to which the Constitution confers a special place in the system for the protection of fundamental rights must be conducted in such a way that its actions conform to the importance that the constitutional system gives it. An authority of the Portuguese State that has been chosen as a ‘partner entity’ by the relevant actors in the international human rights system must be conducted in such a way that the extent of its ‘domestic’ action conforms to the extent of the international commitments that, in this field, the Republic has undertaken. However, none of these requirements will be met if the passive attitude of accepting and receiving any and all complaints that the administrative action – in its broadest sense – may trigger is maintained. The willingness to receive without limits may have made sense in 1974, when we had not yet built an administrative edifice sufficiently equipped with internal inspection and control mechanisms, and when we had not yet entrusted independent entities with the task of regulating essential public sectors. Almost half a century later, this disposition for unlimited receipt is no longer justifiable. Therefore, instead of receiving everything and responding to everything – often giving attention to problems and questions that, due to their dimension and nature, should be solved by the supervisory entities of each sector – the Ombudsman’s Office will have to progressively select its fields of intervention, devolving responsibilities to the instances of control and supervision that exist in each sectoral area.”

Maria Lúcia Amaral, Ombudsman

An independent state body created in 1975, the Ombudsman defends people who see their fundamental rights violated or feel aggrieved by unjust or illegal acts or omissions by the administration or other public powers. At the same time, it is the National Human Rights Institution and the 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 out a specific form.

Maria Lúcia Amaral has been the Ombudsman since November 2017.

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