Katarina Påhlsson – summary 2021/22
Parliamentary Ombudsman, supervisory area 1
My area of responsibility includes the courts of law, the Rent and Tenancy Tribunal, the Prison and Probation Service, the planning and construction sectors, environmental and health protection, and the guardianship system. The area of responsibility includes a number of central authorities, including the Enforcement Agency, the National Courts Administration, the Crime Victim and Compensation Authority, the Board of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency. The focus of the supervision is on issues concerning the general courts of law and the prison and probation regime.
There was a wide variety of complaints concerning the general courts of law, but some questions recur. One such complaint concerns the courts’ disclosure of confidential information. Sensitive information often features in court cases and the courts have a high level of knowledge and experience in handling it. It is, however, serious when incorrect handling occurs. For example, if a secret address is disclosed, the consequences can be serious. Unfortunately, there is a lack consistency in the application of the regulations regarding confidentiality, even if it is not a common reason for classified information being disclosed. When such information is disclosed, it instead appears to be due to individual mistakes, which in turn sometimes appears to be the consequence of heavy workloads. With regard to observations made both during inspections and in the handling of complaints, it further cannot be ruled out that the design of the courts’ case management system may contribute to such oversights.
It is not uncommon for a complainant to claim that they have been wrongly convicted. Exactly like in cases concerning dissatisfaction with a substantive decision taken by an authority, I do not usually investigate such complaints. To a large extent, decisions and judgments are based on assessments and they can differ without there necessarily needing to exist any errors. Additionally, normally a judgment can be appealed to a higher court. In this respect I think there may be a misconception concerning the Parliamentary Ombudsmen’s role; an ombudsman can review a procedure from a legal perspective but cannot change a judgment. In general, I see it as an important pedagogical task for me as an ombudsman to try to explain what the Parliamentary Ombudsmen’s role is in various contexts.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic’s affect on Swedish society since the spring of 2020, the courts have succeeded in hearing many cases. Digitalisation, an increased use of video technology in main hearings and the fact that more cases than before are decided without hearings have been highlighted as explanations for making this possible. However, details have emerged that trials in, mostly, slightly larger or more complex criminal cases with many parties involved, although also in other cases without specific time deadlines, have been cancelled or postponed. This may possibly partly explain the now increased number of complaints received by the Parliamentary Ombudsmen concerning long processing times in the courts of law. It risks affecting legal certainty when individuals have to wait an unreasonably long time to have their cases heard and, as such, a trial must be carried out within a reasonable time. There is reason to assume that the way the courts of law organise their work and decide on priorities, in line with the relevant legal regulations, will be even more important in the future.
The pandemic has continued to affect significantly the conditions for people deprived of their liberty in the prison and probation regime. Last spring, I carried out a special investigation into the situation for inmates in prisons and remand prisons during the pandemic. The most important observations were reported additionally, together with the results of corresponding investigations conducted by my fellow ombudsmen in their respective areas of responsibility, in a special report published in the autumn of 2020. For my part, I was able to state that inmates in prisons and remand prisons have only a limited possibility to affect their own situations and that they are dependent on the Prison and Probation Service taking appropriate and proportionate measures in a crisis situation whilst maintaining legal certainty. Naturally, this still applies and has motivated, inter alia, an ongoing investigation into the legal basis for decisions on separation of inmates due to feared and established infection of Covid-19.
Complaints having an immediate connection to the pandemic are not as common as last year, but judging by the complaints received, there are restrictions on, for example, the possibility of receiving visits and taking leave, which are, of course, still a significant strain on inmates. In step with the vaccinations of both inmates and society in general, some relief has however been experienced recently. Despite this, there is still a clear concern regarding the spread of infection, such as when a person arriving to serve a prison sentence is placed directly in a unit with others or when inmates are forced to share a cell.
The occupancy situation was strained even before the virus outbreak and it did not improved during the year. Many complaints relate to this: inmates highlight, inter alia, that the double occupancy of cells increases the risk of both the spread of infection and conflicts, that visiting rooms are used for the placement of inmates, which in turn limits their ability to receive visits and that they do not receive their daily outdoor access. Furthermore, it appears that inmates’ dissatisfaction with the strained occupancy situation spills over into other issues, as seen by the receipt of the relatively large number of reports during the spring concerning food and diets.
During the year, I completed an investigation into the occupancy situation with particular regard to remand prisons, and many of the issues mentioned above were relevant here. The Prison and Probation Service has a responsibility not only to ensure people deprived of their liberty are held under safe and secure conditions but also for upholding the rights of these inmates. It is particularly serious that the Prison and Probation Service is still unable to satisfy the right to association, i.e. spending time with others during the day. Even with a strained occupancy situation, the authority has a responsibility to ensure association occurs and to break the isolation of inmates. The Prison and Probation Service is now greatly increasing the number of places by, inter alia, building new facilities and it is important that the basic requirements for humane prison care are met.
There have not been many complaints concerning the guardianship system, but those received are characterised by the fact that, behind each report, there is a person in particular need of support and help. The system of guardians and custodians is based to a significant extent on non-profit actors. The assignments can be demanding and place strong requirements regarding suitability, knowledge and personal qualities. In some instances, it is unfortunately difficult for chief guardians to recruit deputies. This means that the processing can be lengthy and I have observed additionally further shortcomings in the case processing of chief guardians. In the recently submitted report Guardians and custodians – an investigation (Government Inquiry 2021: 36), there are proposals that aim to improve the situation. This is one of many responses I provided to legislative consultations.