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Oversight by independent bodies

Last edited: December 29, 2011

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  • Independent external oversight can secure and maintain public trust in security institutions and highlight shortcomings in internal regulation. It is often very difficult to obtain accurate public information on the types of complaints handled, and whether any of them concern lack of performance in addressing violence against women or accusations of abuse against other officers. Depending on the national context, a variety of external oversight bodies can be involved in ensuring accountability of the sector, including: ombudsperson’s offices; national human rights institutions; independent review boards; audit offices; and public complaints commissions. Independent oversight bodies should:

    • Function on the basis of statutory law and report to parliament and the relevant minister directly.

    • Be accorded quasi-judicial powers so they can undertake investigations and site visits (e.g. to women’s police stations, prisons) at their own initiative and institute proceedings in courts.

    • Have the status and mandate to make binding recommendations.

    • Have access to classified information enabling them to carry out their mandate (e.g. cases of abuse by security sector personnel), in addition to materials accessible through freedom of information policies, which is important in support of their work.

    • Operate at a variety of levels (e.g. national and local) to ensure they are accessible to women and girls in remote areas.

    • Have clear procedures for the registration, investigation and processing of complaints, including special procedures with respect to confidentiality and interviewing female survivors of violence.

    • Collect, disaggregate and widely publish data and reports on the profile of complainants reporting gender-based violence, types and patterns or alleged abuse (e.g. non-registration of cases, improper investigation, misconduct by police /military personnel, registration of false cases) and outcome of investigations (including time taken).

    • Publish their findings in annual and other reports.

  • Ombuds institutions / persons: An ombudsperson is an official, usually appointed by the government or by parliament, mandated to represent the interests of the public by investigating and addressing complaints reported by citizens. Dedicated ombudspersons may be appointed to oversee issues such as human rights, gender equality across government, and security sector performance; or may be established as specific police or defense ombudsperson. These officials can play a key role in addressing public complaints that may not otherwise be prioritized and working with security institutions to improve their practices related to gender-based violence.

Example: Audit of New South Wales Police Force handling of domestic and family violence complaints (Australia)

In accordance with section 160 of the Police Act 1990, which requires the Ombudsman to ‘keep under scrutiny the systems established within the New South Wales Police Force for dealing with complaints’, and in follow-up to a 2006 investigation of police responses to domestic violence, an audit was conducted in 2008. The report aimed to assess and provide feedback to the police, direct domestic violence service providers and the broader community about whether domestic violence-related complaints were being appropriately and effectively handled; contribute to the identification of good practices and making recommendations about areas for improvement; and, ensure complainants – particularly survivors of domestic violence – receive an appropriate response from the New South Wales Police.

The majority of complaints related to police conduct in directly responding to a domestic violence incident or the conduct of officers accused of domestic violence (mainly intimidation/stalking and assault). The report found that:

  • Complaints received in 2008 were generally well-handled by the police.

  • Issues raised by complaints were correctly assessed by police, with notification to the Ombudsman made when required as well as appropriate action taken as needed.

  • Police generally initiated protective action on behalf of victims in response to complaints.

  • Some form of appropriate management action was taken in relation to the majority of complaints referred for evidence-based investigation.

  • The level of complainant satisfaction was reasonable. 

  • There were some instances where complaints were not well-handled by police, which had serious consequences and relate to operational issues within the police.

In response to the findings, a set of detailed recommendations were made, which include ongoing police reporting to the ombudsman on actions taken in response to the audit and establishment of an audit of complaints filed to police in 2010, among other measures to improve police handling and monitoring of domestic violence complaints. 

Source: New South Wales Ombudsman. 2011. Audit of New South Wales Police Force handling of domestic and family violence complaints: A special report to Parliament under section 161 of the Police Act 1990.” NSW Ombudsman. Sydney.


Example: Egypt’s National Council of Women’s Ombudsperson’s office

In 2002, Egypt’s National Council on Women established an ombudsperson’s office to receive complaints from women with regard to gender discrimination. The complaints deal with gender discrimination at work, the Personal Status Law, domestic violence, inheritance, and other issues. In addressing violence against women and girls, the office cooperates with the Ministry of Social Affairs to refer victims to shelters. Active in all governorates of Egypt, the office has the following goals:

  • Monitoring women’s needs and complaints and serving as a link between National Council and women who encounter any form of unconstitutional discrimination or unequal opportunity.

  • Ensuring that women’s voices and concerns are brought to the attention of policy- and decision-makers.

  • Contributing to addressing some of the day-to-day problems facing women.

  • Establishing an information database documenting the types of complaints received, the frequency of recurrence, and the obstacles they pose to women’s progress, with the purpose of making the relevant suggestions, proposals, or amendments to legislations to the authorities concerned.

The key services provided by the office include:

  • Receiving complaints via telephone, hotline, postal service, mail, fax and in-person meetings.

  • Providing legal and social counselling through specialists in those fields.

  • Referring women's complaints to the relevant authorities and following them up.

  • Assisting female complainants, if needed, to approach specialized attorneys, as well as attorneys working on pro bono basis with the Ombudsperson's office.

  • Conducting research and studies into issues raised by complaints received by the office.

The Office gives recommendations to different actors - including the police and judiciary - on how better to respond to cases of violence– for example, by cooperating with the Ministry of Interior to train police officers on registering complaints of domestic violence survivors.

Source: United States Agency for International Development, 2009. National Council for Women Report on Egypt. USAID. Washington, D.C. 


Example: Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsperson’s annual reports

Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsperson’s annual reports contain comprehensive data including the full scale and details of all complaints handled by the Ombudsperson for that year. Information fully disclosed in every annual report (available for download) includes:

  • Number of complaints received from the public.

  • Number of complaints received on referral from the head of police or the Public Prosecution Service.

  • Outcomes of cases investigated, which covers:

    • number of cases referred for prosecution with criminal charges;

    • number of criminal charges recommended in total;

    • nature and allegations of charges;

    • number of cases referred to police for disciplinary action;

    • ranks of officers subject of complaints;

    • factors underlying complaints.

The Office regularly communicates complaints reported to the police, at the level of each district command. Each month, the Ombudsperson forwards statistical reports to the police detailing the numbers and types of allegations associated with each station within each district. Within the monthly reports, local police commanders receive information on individual officers who have received three or more complaints in a 12-month period, including the number of complaints, number of allegations and details of the allegations. Annual reports summarizing complaints and case status are complemented by complainant satisfaction surveys, among other publications examining of the office’s work.

The annual report illustrates how information can be systematically shared with police for their follow-up action as well as disseminated to the public to increase transparency. As data on allegations of rape or sexual assault by police officers or staff members is not categorized separately, with these cases included as “other incidents”, future development of the reports could establish a distinct category for these crimes to improve tracking and follow-up by the police and highlight efforts to eliminate abuses where relevant.

Sources: Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. 2008. Annual Report and Accounts 2007-2008; Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. Complaints Outcomes.

  • National human rights commissions: National commissions and other institutions should play an important role in tracking trends and patterns of abuses of women and girls’ human rights and in the investigation, referral and prosecution of individual cases, as established by the Paris Principles adopted by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in 1992. Key actions of Commissions include:

    • receiving and investigating complaints of alleged human rights abuses made by the public and other bodies;

    • advising governments on issues related to legislation and compliance with international human rights law; and

    • raising public and security institution’s awareness of the human rights of women and girls.


Example: The Philippines Commission on Human Rights

The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines has, since the introduction of legislation addressing violence against women (Republic Act No 9262), been a member of the Inter-agency Council Against Violence against Women and their Children. The Commission’s role has included: developing a Plan of Action for the implementation of the law; advocacy towards the promotion of the law (including with the military); and the creation of the Commission’s Men Opposed to Violence Everywhere group, which spoke at a side- event alongside the Commission at the 2009 Commission on the Status of Women. The Commission also performs duties on behalf of the Inter-agency Council Against Trafficking, which include monitoring, investigation and victim protection.

The Women's Rights Program Center, a special unit within the Commission, investigates human rights violations against women, and initiates legal action or provides assistance in cases of legal discrimination, non-recognition of women's rights, multiple burdens, unequal access to land, violence against women, politics and governance, justice, peace and order, employment, health, and education.

Sources: Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, website; and International Criminal Court. 2009. ICC Discussion Paper on the Role of National Human Rights Institutions in Advancing the Rights of Women at CSW.

  • Independent review boards, established to monitor the performance of police with respect to specific crimes such as domestic violence and sexual assault, can be an important mechanism to encourage improved responses and support to women and girl survivors.

Example: The London Metropolitan Police’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Board

In 2006, the Metropolitan Police Authority’s Domestic and Sexual Violence Board was established as a stand-alone monitoring structure reporting to the Communities Equalities and People Committee in support of the implementation of the Mayor of London’s 2008 London Violence Against Women Strategy. The Domestic and Sexual Violence Board has a Code of Conduct and its role is to:

  • Lead the effective monitoring and support of the police in its response to domestic and sexual violence for the Communities Equalities and People Committee.

  • Secure continuous improvement in the Metropolitan Police’s response to domestic and sexual violence by ensuring a consistent and structured follow-up of actions.

  • Address consistency of service with regard to the issues by focusing monitoring and support on the 32 Borough Operational Command Units, and the Metropolitan Police Service as a corporate body, monitoring coordination and implementation of policy and practice across the Police Service.

  • Identify gaps highlighted by the 32 Borough Operational Command Units and corporate Police Service units and, where appropriate, ensure issues are raised with relevant Police Authority Committees and/or other fora.

  • Link to other London and/or national domestic and sexual violence and related bodies.

  • Disseminate best practice and innovation across the Borough Command Units and Police Service as a whole.

  • Increase trust and confidence in the community by sharing the successes of the Police Service and engaging the public’s participation in the monitoring process.

The Domestic and Sexual Violence Board was restructured and re-launched in 2009, following the transition to a mayoral London Violence Against Women Strategy (from the London Domestic Violence Strategy), with annual reports, including recommendations to the Metropolitan Police and to the government. Further information can be found here.

Source: Metropolitan Police Authority - Domestic and Sexual Violence Board, website.

  • Audit offices play a key role in scrutinizing the use of public funds, ensuring that they are used transparently, effectively and efficiently, in legal framework and policy objectives. Offices can focus on particular sectors (e.g. security) or issues (e.g. programmes to address violence against women and girls), specifically examining:

  • Public complaints commissions: Specialist commissions (e.g. police complaints authorities) can provide important channels for women and girls to file complaints about security failures, abuses and misconduct by personnel without fear, and to ensure that each case receives a prompt and proper independent and unbiased investigation. The mechanism has the potential to improve accountability of the sector; increase community trust in security institutions; and encourage survivors of violence to speak out. However, they are often under-resourced, have insufficient coverage, and may lack the mandate and support to take action on serious offences.

Challenges in establishing effective Police Complaints Authorities in India

In 2006, the Indian Supreme Court responded to a petition by two former Police Director General by mandating all states to immediately establish Police Complaints Authorities at state and district levels to deal with the ongoing problem of police accountability. The Police Complaints Authorities: are independent of the police; have their own powers of investigation; can deal exclusively with complaints of serious police misconduct and neglect of duty; and can make binding recommendations for action (Authorities’ recommendations at state and district levels “for any action, departmental or criminal, against a delinquent police officer shall be binding on the concerned authority”).

The state-level Authority is empowered to investigate allegations of “serious misconduct” by police, which includes but is not limited to, death, grievous hurt and rape in police custody. The district-level Authorities can investigate complaints of death, grievous hurt, rape in police custody, allegations of extortion, land/house grabbing, and other serious abuse of authority. The jurisdiction of the state and district-level Authorities is linked to the ranks of officers being complained against. The state-level Authority looks into complaints against the Superintendent of Police and higher officials, while the district-level Authority inquires into complaints against the Deputy Superintendent of Police and below.

At the end of 2009, 15 states had established Authorities using legislation or government orders, with 7 operational at that time (in Assam, Chandigarh, Goa, Haryana, Kerala, Tripura and Uttarakhand). 

Since 2009, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative has monitored the work of the Authorities, in collaboration with them, as they have experienced operational challenges and have sought guidance and support in their work. Using the Right to Information Act to access all complaints received and orders passed by the Authority, the initiative assesses the functionality of the Authorities using complainant interviews to assess their satisfaction with the Authority’s response to their complaint, proceeding fairness and the orders passed. Challenges identified with Authorities included:

  • Most Authorities are severely under-resourced, lack independent members with diverse skill sets, and have not been allocated a fixed budget.

  • Over-reliance on police to make decisions in cases rather than using independent investigators (e.g. tendency to rely on the concerned Police Superintendent’s report to determine a complaint’s relevance, which is a conflict of interest as police are tasked with investigating the alleged misdeeds of officers under their jurisdiction).

  • Insufficient coverage, poor outreach and community awareness.

  • Unwillingness to follow protocols for serious offences (e.g. on a rape case in Uttarakhand, the first information report was not registered for the accused officer).

  • Widespread public perception that police complaints lack speed and transparency, and do not lead to systemic changes or consequences for individual personnel.

Sources: Srinivas, S. and Siddiqui, A., (2009), ‘Your Guide to Using Police Complaints Authorities’, CHRI Better Policing Series, New Delhi: CHRI; Kotwal, N. and Srinivas, S. (2010) ‘Uttarakhand State Police Complaints Authority: Analysing Accountability in Action’, CHRI Better Policing Series, New Delhi: CHRI; Kotwal, N. and Prasad, D. (2010) ‘Complaints Authorities: Police Accountability in Action’ CHRI Better Policing Series, New Delhi: CHRI; email response from Navaz Kotwal (2010).

Promising Practice: South Africa’s Independent Complaints Directorate

South Africa’s Independent Complaints Directorate was established as an independent government body in 1997 to investigate complaints of brutality, criminality and misconduct against members of the South African Police Service, and the Municipal Police Service. Operating independently from the Police, it investigates:

  • Deaths in police custody or as a result of police action (e.g. shooting, assault).

  • The involvement of Police members in criminal activities (e.g. assault, theft, corruption, robbery, rape and any other criminal offences).

  • Police conduct or behaviour, which is prohibited by the Police Service Standing Orders or Police Regulations, (e.g. neglect of duties or failure to comply with the police Code of Conduct).

  • Dissatisfaction/ complaints about poor service provided by the police.

  • Failure to assist/ protect domestic violence victims as required by the Domestic Violence Act.

  • Misconduct or offences committed by members of the Municipal Police Services.

Following the South African Police Service Act 68 of 1995, the Directorate is empowered to investigate all cases of misconduct against the Police Service and the Municipal Police, which includes offences and misconduct where a member:

  • kills or causes the death of any person involved with him/her in a domestic relationship, such as a spouse.

  • commits an offence such as assault, rape, etc. against a person in a domestic relationship with the member, such as a spouse.

  • refuses to assist a victim of domestic abuse.

Based on the Domestic Violence Act 116 of 1998, failure of the Police to comply with an obligation imposed in terms of the Act constitutes misconduct (Act 68 of 1995) and the Police Service is obliged to report to the Directorate all misconduct pertaining to non-compliance with the Act. The Directorate can exempt members if a valid explanation for non-compliance is offered; investigate the case; or request the Police to investigate through a disciplinary hearing.

The Directorate must submit a report to Parliament every six months regarding the number and types of cases reported - including the number of deaths as a result of police action and in police custody and the number of public complaints – as well as recommendations made by the Directorate. There is also a specific six-month report on implementation of the Domestic Violence Act, which details cases of non-compliance with the Act (e.g. failure to: effect arrest warrants, advise complainants of options - filing a criminal charge or applying for a Protection Order or both, assist complainants, furnish a subpoena and serve a Protection Order).

The Act report also details actions taken by the Directorate to promote compliance (e.g. awareness campaigns, workshops, station visits) and contains indicators of the Directorate’s institutional performance (e.g. average days taken to finalize investigations, percentage of investigation reports finalized, number of cases “substantiated, number of prosecutions recommended, number of convictions).

The National Commissioner of Police must submit a report to Parliament every six months regarding steps taken as a result of the Directorate’s recommendations.

The ICD Annual Report 2009/2010 profiles six cases of alleged rape by police officers.  In two cases, the perpetrator was dismissed from the South African Police Service following disciplinary hearings, two were acquitted, and two are outstanding. 

Sources: Kotwal, N.& Prasad, D. 2010. ‘Complaints Authorities: Police Accountability in Action’ CHRI Better Policing Series.  CHRI. New Delhi; Independent Complaints Directorate website.