For starters, ombudsman is a misnomer. Professor Alice Brown is unmistakably an ombudswoman, not to mention a wife and mother. "Sometimes I've heard myself referred to as the ombudsbird, " she smiles, recalling how the Scottish Parliament wanted the title to be "gender neutral". For once political correctness gave way to common sense although there was reportedly an argument - abandoned, mercifully - for calling her the ombud.

Anyway, Professor Brown is Scotland's public services ombudsman, and she is about to produce her second annual report.

By the time it lands on the desks of MSPs in the Scottish Parliament - her collective supervisor - she will have overseen more than 4000 complaints from Scots who feel themselves to be victims of an injustice at the hands of our public services.

So far the record shows the service working efficiently with the great majority of complaints settled informally and often quickly. Only 25 or so cases a year are taken to the point of formal investigation and, again so far, none has reached an impasse which would require the nuclear option of a report to the Scottish Parliament - the equivalent of an orderwhich cannot be disobeyed. Brown has no direct enforcement powers but a call on the parliament for action would have much the same effect.

Her work is a prime example of devolution being put to work in improving how Scotland is run. There was a time before home rule when someone on the wrong end of an injustice felt the only real hope was a letter to the local MP who might, depending on mood, take up the case.

Later came a confusing array of ombudsmen across sectors from local government to housing and health and often a resort to some remote figure in London. Now there is one unified service - a one-stop shop soon to be enlarged again, with responsibility for complaints against mental health authorities, Scottish Enterprise, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and eventually the higher and further education sectors.

"It's a huge remit and Scotland is leading the way in the UK, " says Professor Brown who sometimes sounds just a touch surprised that she is in the job at all. "None of this was planned by me, " she says by way of explaining her remarkable journey from leaving school at 15 with no qualifications to emerging as one of the nation's leading academics, then a second career switch which made her the champion of those with a complaint about our public services.

"It does seem a bit odd now, " she smiles.

Her CV, which runs to several impressive pages, shows a woman at the heart of the changing Scottish political process over those critical years from the mid-1980s to the birth of the Scottish Parliament.

Long before the ombudsman's job came along she was active in the Labour Party and served on many bodies including those which set the ground rules for Holyrood.

She has been a notable champion of women in public life (she advised Helen Liddell during her time as minister for women) and helped to set standards for MSPs. She assisted Labour in its femalefriendly selection process for the first Holyrood elections. Brown campaigned against low pay and has also shown an interest in raising business awareness among parliamentarians on a sharp learning curve.

Nowadays no-one can tell Alice Brown what to do - not the government, not ministers, not even - strictly speaking - her own boss, the parliament, which hired her, because complaints against its own corporate body are another of her responsibilities. She is independent - protected by statute in the Scottish public services ombudsman act - and appointed formally by the Queen.

So is she an Establishment figure who has simply gone rogue? "That's an interesting question, " she laughs, "but, no, because I feel very passionate about delivering public services. My job is to help ensure members of the public get the services they deserve. Those who use public services most are those who complain least.

"Part of our role is actually to improve good practice in public services. We give guidance to public bodies under our jurisdiction and tend to spend a lot of our time going about and just telling people what we do - trying to prevent problems from happening in the first place. If disputes are not dealt with early on people tend to get things out of all perspective and proportion."

Some eyebrows have been raised at the cost of the new breed of "czars" and "watchdogs" overseeing life in post-home rule Scotland. In the case of Brown, whose starting salary was (Pounds) 72,000 a year, she and her payroll of 36 in bright new offices in Edinburgh's Melville Street will cost the taxpayer (Pounds) 2.8m a year by 2006. But in return, the users of a wide range of services have a new champion who could save them money.

The upside to this considerable cost is the saving in potential legal expenses for individuals using the services. Settling in court can be absurdly expensive and the ombudsman offers a free alternative.

"We are anxious to get it across to people that we are here and want to help. We want to explain what we can and cannot do. We cannot change some properly-made decision just because people might not like it but we can and do resolve injustices. If people think they are victims of an injustice we will listen to them and help where we can."

Those devolution watchwords of accessibility, openness and transparency are close to Alice Brown's heart, hence the very practical addition of interview rooms at the entrance to the ombudsman's offices in Melville Street. A steady turnover can be observed most days as those with a grievance seek assistance.

Some "customers" are persistent, even obsessive. Those with a burning sense of injustice are made aware of the limits of acceptable behaviour. For the ombudsman it must be an occupational hazard, hence the evident signs of security in the interview cubicles. "We have not had to call the police so far, " says ProfessorBrown with a note of relief.

Of the 2000 or so who sought help from the ombudsman last year, more than half concerned disputes with local government, usually over planning, council tax or house repairs. The biggest single source of discontent is local planning disputes. Some 300 complaints in that period concerned the health service and its perceived failings.

Professor Brown, and her three deputies, try to resolve disputes quickly and informally. Only more difficult cases go into formal procedures which can be protracted.

She is eager to ensure all parties learn from the process, and see administrative faults built into the system removed.

"Most people just come here because they want their problem fixed and that often means also fixing the system, " she says.

Public discontent - cases closed . . .

Problem: The complainant was unhappy with the delay from her local authority in adapting her home to suit her husband's medical needs.

Outcome: The complainant's husband died during the examining of the case.

Nevertheless the complainant received an apology and a payment for her trouble. The authority also launched an investigation into the causes of the delay.

Case received on 12/9/03;

determined 10/5/04

Problem: Two councils were unable to agree who should pay for the care of an elderly lady entitled to have costs met by a local authority. Meanwhile, the lady's family had to foot the bill.

Outcome: The councils eventually split the bill of (Pounds) 4500 and the loophole that caused the problem was drawn to the attention of the Scottish Executive.

Case received 9/10/03;

determined 6/4/04

Problem: A woman complained of delays by the Scottish Executive Justice Department in taking action and providing documents relevant to court action she was involved with in France.

Outcome: The department accepted there were failings on their part and gave assurance procedures would be strengthened. They apologised to the woman and paid her (Pounds) 1000.

Received 1/10/03;

determined 29/1/04

Problem: A woman complained on behalf of her cousin, who left long-term care in 1992 to live in the community, that the local authority had mismanaged her cousin's affairs and failed to pay (Pounds) 5000.

Outcome: The council gave an apology, and a payment of (Pounds) 500 - which was later followed by another payment of (Pounds) 5000, plus interest of (Pounds) 230.

Received 8/10/00;

determined 11/12/03