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Lending an ear to grievances

When anger boils over, the consequence can be dramatic Keystone

A 67-year-old pensioner, apparently with a burning grievance against the authorities, was arrested on Friday after being on the run for over a week.

Hundreds of police had been looking for the man. It was reported that he had been in dispute with the authorities in the town of Biel for many years, before the planned forced auction of his home finally drove him to action.

Following the incident, Claudia Kaufmann, ombudswoman for the city of Zurich, tells how her office can help mediate between angry citizens and the authorities.

With citizens facing increasing bureaucracy, the role of the ombudsperson is becoming more important, she says. Could the present case have been avoided if Biel had had an ombudsperson for people who are in dispute with the authorities?

Claudia Kaufmann: There’s no “yes” or “no” answer to this question. It would be a bit of an oversimplification to establish an office only for such a purpose.

But experience in Switzerland and abroad shows that of course our contacts are often with people who are at first disappointed, then frustrated, and later even get to the point of despair because they feel the authorities aren’t listening to them; people who don’t understand officialdom and feel generally abandoned. That’s where an ombudsperson can be useful. Wouldn’t an ombudsperson’s office be overstretched by such difficult cases?

C.K.: Of course you have to take every case on its own merits. In the final resort, everyone is responsible for their own behaviour. Some people resist advice. But we do have lots of success in this area too. How busy is your office?

C.K.: The office in the city of Zurich is very busy. We have also seen that we have more and more clients every year. Last year we dealt in detail with 550 cases, and had another 880 enquiries. In other words, we are in contact with about 1,300 people every year. What’s the most difficult thing about your job?

C.K.: One difficulty is that you have to keep asking critical questions – self-critical ones as well – in order to be sure you get to what’s really behind the conflict, and don’t come up with an easy solution too quickly.

At the same time we need to ask people in the administration, who often don’t have a lot of time and have to work according to set patterns and in accordance with their existing experience, to take the time and patience to find the right level for people who aren’t easy to deal with, who aren’t used to the ways of the administration, and whom perhaps we find a little alien. What happens if all your efforts fail in a difficult case? Can you request a psychiatric appraisal?

C.K.: First we have to ask what we mean by “all efforts failing”. Our experience shows that it isn’t only the result that counts. It begins much earlier, with clients getting the chance to speak to someone, having a personal contact and not always being dealt with through correspondence.

But of course it’s often to do with very real financial and material questions. If we don’t get a result, we should try to look for other places, other possibilities, so that we can continue to help the person.

Fortunately, extreme cases are very rare in our experience. We are not able to request a psychiatric appraisal in a difficult case. The principle of our office is that we don’t have any power of implementation, either with regard to the authorities, or with regard to our clients.

And our first principle is confidentiality. We only act outside the office if the clients agree. How do you cope with threats?

C.K.: In my opinion it is vital to take threats seriously. Every threat is a sign, a signal, a message, that is trying to say something.

It is always important to me to speak to the clients about it. I make it clear that I have heard their threat. Many clients react by saying that that wasn’t what they meant. The important thing is to talk about it, and for me to make it clear that I can’t build up a basis of trust with a client if they make threats, including threats against the authorities. That cannot be tolerated. But talking about the threats, taking them seriously, as a rule is also the best way to halt them. Are ombudsmen and women becoming more important in modern society?

C.K.: On the one hand their value was clear from the very beginning. Sweden was the first country to establish the role 200 years ago. The idea has proved its worth.

On the other hand, their importance has increased, when I think how much more complex administrative procedures have become. Civil servants have less and less time, procedures have been formalised, now they often don’t know the people they are dealing with, especially in towns, and matters are often reduced to an exchange of letters. All of this means that the work of the ombudsperson has become more valuable.

And citizens have become more self-confident and demanding towards the authorities – often quite rightly so, I would say. For me, demands for participation, transparency and fairness are signs that people know what democracy is about. So I think the function of ombudsperson contributes to strengthening the rule of law and bringing democracy to life.

The lawyer Claudia Kaufmann has been the city of Zurich’s ombudswoman since 2004.

The office in Zurich was the first at commune level anywhere in Europe.

It will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year.

The office deals with issues ranging from building applications that are turned down, to difficulties with the police and noise problems, and issues with obtaining citizenship.

Cases have mainly been focused in two major areas in recent years. One is to do with dealings with the police, in difficult cases mainly with arrests, identity checks and body searches which people felt have been abusive.

The other is to do with social services, particularly social security. Cases from the department of social services have accounted for 35-40% of all their work in the last few years.

Conflicts in the family, at work or with the authorities have several times pushed people into taking up weapons when they have seen no other alternative.

Innocent outsiders are often injured or killed.

The worst case recorded in Switzerland so far involved 57 year old Friedrich Leibacher, who shot and killed 14 people in the Zug cantonal parliament on September 27 2001 before turning his gun on himself.

The latest case in Biel started on September 8, when a 67-year-old pensioner holed himself up in his parents’ house, which was due to be auctioned against his will.

He left the house during the night, shooting and seriously injuring one of the policemen surrounding it.

Despite the fact that hundreds of police were called in to help track him down, he was not arrested until September 17.

(Translated from German by Julia Slater)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR