An ombudsman is an independent officer of the legislature who investigates complaints from the public against administrative action and, if finding the action unfair, recommends a remedy. Unlike a court, an ombudsman does not have power to annul a decision, but in most cases recommendations to the administrative authorities are accepted. If not, the matter can be reported to the legislature. The complaint procedure is much less formal and costly than a court appeal; all it involves is writing a letter to the ombudsman. Originating in Sweden (the word is Swedish for "agent" or "representative"), the office of ombudsman was adopted by Norway and New Zealand in 1962, and then spread rapidly to other countries. By 1997 there were 191 offices in 72 countries. Canada's provinces have been among the world's leaders in adopting the institution. Alberta and New Brunswick created the office in 1967, Québec in 1968 (Protecteur du citoyen) and Manitoba in 1969. The other provinces, except for Prince Edward Island, followed in the 1970s, but the institution has since been abolished in Newfoundland.
The first International Ombudsman Conference was held in Edmonton in 1976. The International Ombudsman Institute was established at the University of Alberta in 1978, and it serves as the centre for research studies on ombudsmanship. In 1977 a committee of senior officials supported the appointment of a federal ombudsman but, although the government introduced a bill in 1978 to create the office, ombudsmanlike offices for special purposes were created instead. If the federal government creates a general ombudsman office, these specialized offices will perhaps become subunits of it.
In recent years the ombudsman idea has spread beyond the original concept of an independent general office of the legislature for complaints against the government administration. In North America there are now many specialized ombudsmen for complaints against specific government departments or agencies. There are also university and school ombudsmen for complaints by students, hospital ombudsmen for patients, newspaper ombudsmen for readers, and ombudsmen appointed by business corporations, mainly for complaints by employees. A new trend in Western Europe and the Commonwealth is the creation of ombudsman offices by associations of business firms, especially in the financial sector, or by professional associations, such as lawyers, to handle complaints by customers or clients. For instance, in 1996 the Canadian Bankers Association appointed an ombudsman to settle customer complaints against member banks. Britain has such "association ombudsmen" for banks, insurance companies, investment companies, credit unions, estate agents, lawyers and even funeral directors.