The Office of the Ombudsman is in "crisis", says the Chief Ombudsman.
Beverley Wakem says the public watchdog has a bulging backlog of cases because it lacks investigators, with underpaid staff leaving and in some cases literally being worked to death.
Appearing before Parliament's government administration committee, Ms Wakem said the office, which investigates complaints from the public stemming from their dealings with central and local government, was under "considerable pressure" in terms of staffing and funding and had been for the past three years.
She said the office's baseline funding had been established on the basis it would be actively working on 800 to 1000 cases at any one time.
At present it was dealing with about double that. The office had about 300 cases it was unable to work on because of a lack of available investigators.
Its workload had also been boosted by about 270 complaints stemming from quake victims' dealings with the Earthquake Commission and Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority.
Ms Wakem said public sector reforms would also probably increase the workload, particularly where complaints processes for individual agencies were amalgamated.
The office, she said, was "sinking under the weight of the complaint burden. I'd say we are in crisis".
The public would suffer as a result from delays in handling complaints.
"At the end of the day that isn't acceptable. Justice delayed is justice denied and people are already distressed when they approach the office."
The situation was also taking its toll on staff, and the office was now "exploiting" workers who had not had a pay rise since 2007 and were working long hours to try to keep up with the caseload, Ms Wakem said.
Staff were leaving for better-paid jobs elsewhere and it was hard to find suitably qualified replacements.
The incidence of serious illnesses such as cancer among her staff was higher than the national average.
"It's not coincidental that this is an extremely stressful occupation. When people come to us they are angry, they are at the end of their tether ... it's not easy dealing with them.
"Two people died in office in my time and one died shortly after leaving us," she said.
Ms Wakem said she had asked for about $1 million to be added to the office's baseline budget of $8.6 million, so it could meet its operating costs and employ two more investigators.
She said starving the Ombudsman's office of the funding it required was a false economy.