Per Lennerbrant – summary 2021/22
Parliamentary Ombudsman, supervisory area 4
This year, my supervision has again included public prosecutors, the police and the customs service, foreigners’ cases at the Swedish Migration Agency, the foreign affairs authorities, the communications service and local administration that is not specially regulated. I have conducted reviews in many urgent and interesting cases together with my colleagues.
Society has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic during the past year. I have been able to see the effects of this in my supervisory activities. This included, for example, complaints about vaccination certificates and how the Swedish Migration Agency handled the spread of infection in its detention centres. The pandemic entered a new phase in the spring of 2022, and many restrictions that had affected people’s day-to-day lives were lifted. This was also reflected in the complaints received. The complaints relating to the Police Authority’s difficulties in coping with the increased demand for passports were perhaps the clearest example of this. Special events in society often lead to complaints being submitted to the Parliamentary Ombudsmen. This was the case with regard to what are known as the Easter riots that took place in several Swedish cities, which led to a large number of complaints against the Police Authority. Moreover, the changing security situation in Afghanistan and the war in Ukraine are world events that have led to complaints being submitted to the Parliamentary Ombudsmen for various reasons.
Other issues raised in the complaints have recurred from previous years. One such issue relates to long processing times. The Parliamentary Ombudsmen have received many complaints about the Police Authority during the year regarding the processing times in cases relating to weapons and – as I mentioned – passports, for example. I have conducted a review of the processing of cases relating to weapons. On the basis of my observations from the review and what was put forward in the complaints, I am concerned about the ability of the Police Authority to cope with tasks of this kind. The same is true of preliminary investigations, particularly into financial crime, where processing times are often unacceptably long and offences often risk becoming statute-barred before the investigation is completed. I have also witnessed long processing times at the Swedish Migration Agency.
It is important for the authorities concerned – but also for the Government and Parliament – to keep processing times to a reasonable level. One of the cornerstones of the Administrative Procedure Act is that cases should be processed as quickly and as efficiently as possible without compromising legal certainty.
Excessively long processing times by the authorities also occurred on disclosure of documents. The right of access to official documents is of fundamental importance in our society for the freedom to form democratic opinions, among other things. It also aims to promote legal certainty and administrative efficiency. The basic principle is that a document has to be disclosed immediately after a request has been made. From the cases I have handled during the year, it has become clear that the authorities do not always comply with this and that overall awareness – not least among municipalities – of what rules apply does not appear to be sufficient. Such a lack of awareness may in practice constitute a restriction of the principle of public access to official documents.
The provision of the Instrument of Government stating that public officials must observe objectivity and impartiality was raised in a number of complaints. I have criticised shortcomings in a couple of cases. I have also seen cases where there was no basic understanding of the implication of the provision. The annual report contains a telling example of this (ref. no. 8485-2021). There may of course be due cause for a number of authorities to provide further training to their staff on what being objective and impartial involves.
It is not uncommon for problems at one authority to have repercussions among other authorities, which in turn can have adverse consequences for individuals. One example is the high occupancy rate in the Swedish Prison and Probation Service, which in some cases has limited the Swedish Migration Agency’s ability to place detainees in secure custody. In one case that I examined, this resulted in a migration detainee being forced to stay in police custody for an unacceptably long time.
I have also witnessed problems when authorities interact with one another. It is not uncommon for law enforcement agencies such as the Police, the Swedish Customs Service and the Swedish Tax Agency to work together. In several cases, I was able to establish that the officials involved were not clear about the framework of their own authority’s powers, leading to the use of coercive measures without legal grounds for doing so, among other things. Cooperation among authorities can be effective and have a number of benefits, but of course this must always take place in a lawful manner.
I have launched or completed several reviews during the year that relate to children and the application of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In the context of an inspection at the custody suite in Malmö, I examined how the Police Authority applies the rules in force since 1 July 2021 on how children who are arrested or detained by the order of a prosecutor can be held in custody. I intend to continue reviewing society’s actions relating to children.
Complaints about the use of coercive measures by the criminal investigation authorities are common at the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsmen, and this year was no exception. The Parliamentary Ombudsmen bear particular responsibility for safeguarding the rights and freedoms of individuals. Many complaints related to the police searching individuals or vehicles for weapons or other dangerous objects, applying the provisions of the Police Act for crime prevention purposes. Such coercive measures are therefore taken with no specific suspicion of a crime. The complaints often involved allegations that actions by the police were unwarranted and based on profiling of the individual on the basis of ethnic origin, for example.
In a previous review, I noted that there are shortcomings in the provisions in question and that they may be difficult to apply, which risks undermining the protection offered by the Instrument of Government against body searches and searches of premises. This is why I made a request to the Government for a review of the regulation. As a follow-up to my earlier review, I launched a broad review early this summer of the urgent issues relating to legal certainty that are associated with the use of body searches and vehicle searches by the police for crime prevention purposes. I am aiming to be able to present the conclusions of the review during the current operating year.