Tips and advice

Before coming to the Ombudsman it is a good idea to try and solve the problem with the agency you want to complain about. As a general rule, the Ombudsman will not, and in some cases cannot, investigate complaints until they have been raised with the agency. Most agencies have internal complaint handling procedures that may be able to sort out the problem to your satisfaction. If you have not contacted the agency first, the Ombudsman may decide not to investigate until you have tried to resolve the problem with the agency itself.

Focus on resolving the main problem

Even though you may be feeling angry and frustrated, it is important that you stay calm and focus on the main problem. Take a few moments to identify the issue that you want to complain about, and what you think should be done to fix it. Do not get distracted by minor details. Give the agency as much detail as it will need to understand and resolve the problem, but no more.

Telephones are often OK, but writing is more effective

Most people prefer telephoning to writing, because it’s cheaper, easier and quicker. But if you are dealing with a large agency, or if the complaint is complex, in our experience it is usually best to write (either a letter or email). However it may be useful to telephone first to identify the person responsible for dealing with your type of complaint and their position.

Telephone complaints can be frustrating. You are not always able to speak to the person directly responsible, calls sometimes don't get returned, and it is not always easy to set out your story as clearly as would like. It is also easier to fob people off. If nothing happens, it is difficult to prove that you complained in the first place, or what was said during the conversation.

If you do decide to telephone, always ask for the name of the person you speak to and their position. In many agencies, staff are not required to give their surnames, but are always required to give you some means of identifying them, even if it is only their given name and/or a receipt number for the call. Tell them about your complaint, ask them if they can help and what they intend to do. Keep notes of the conversation and the time and date of the call. If there is any doubt about whether your concerns have been properly addressed, write a letter. Even if you are satisfied, it may be best to confirm your understanding of what was said during the conversation in writing as soon as possible. Keep copies of your letters.

So unless it is an urgent problem, or the matter can obviously be resolved over the phone, it is best to write. Your letter will be answered, and it is more likely to be handled by the right area and person in the agency. It helps if you know who that person is and their correct title, but that is not essential.

As a general rule, complain to the person in the agency who is responsible for supervising the person or area that you are having trouble with. If you can’t identify the right person, it is quite appropriate to write to the head of the agency. Make it clear in your letter that you consider them responsible for resolving the problem, even though they may not have caused it personally.

What to include in your complaint

Whether you write or telephone, set out your complaint as clearly and briefly as possible. Be specific rather than general. Stick to the main facts, and don’t go into excessive detail. If detail is necessary, it is useful to set it out in a logical order including your name and contact details; relevant dates and times; a description of the incident or decision; details of telephone conversations, meetings and any steps you may have taken to sort out the problem already; and any explanations you think are important. Attach copies of relevant documents to your covering letter, and sign and date it.

State what you want

Having explained the problem, indicate what action or outcome you would like to see as a result of your complaint. Calmness and politeness are always helpful here. Make it clear that you are giving the agency a chance to fix a mistake or an omission, and avoid becoming abusive or aggressive, or blaming an individual for what happened. That usually just encourages people to defend their actions or the actions of their agency, rather than to think about the problem from your perspective, and how to resolve it.

Make sure your demands are not unreasonable. If they are realistic and within the power of the person you are complaining to, you are more likely to achieve a resolution to your problem.

Keep records

This is particularly important. Keep copies of all correspondence you receive and send, and any other important documents or notes. This includes details of telephone calls. You may need to send further letters or provide more information. It helps if you can easily find this and have evidence to back up your claims.

Don’t give up

If nothing happens, telephone the agency to ask about the progress of your complaint. If no progress has occurred, or if the agency cannot or will not explain how things have progressed, then write again. Make it clear that you will not be fobbed off, and that the problem will not go away unless it is properly resolved. If you are unable to sort out the matter after making all reasonable efforts to do so, you should consider contacting the Ombudsman.

See also