Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

Call us on 0800 377 7330

We look at complaints about most organisations providing public services in Scotland.  These include councils, the National Health Service, housing associations, water providers, prisons, the Scottish Government, colleges and universities and many other Scottish public organisations.  For a full list of organisations, click here.

Yes it is.  Our service is free and we have a freepost and freephone number for our customers. See the Contact us section for details.

The SPSO can normally only look at complaints after the organisation's complaints procedure has been fully used.

You should first approach the organisation that you are unhappy with and try to resolve your problem. Most organisations have complaints procedures that outline the stages involved in making a complaint and we normally expect all stages to be used before we consider a complaint so that the organisation has a chance to put things right first.

The How to Complain section of this website gives further information on making a complaint to another organisation and bringing a complaint to the SPSO.

You can complain to us in writing via our website using an online form, in person, by fax or to our freepost address.

You will find an online complaint form on this website or print our paper form found here.

If you need advice please contact us. See contact us for how to contact a member of our advice team and our accessibility section if you have any special needs.

Yes.  During normal office hours there is always an available member of staff to see you.

He or she won’t be able to give you a decision there and then but will listen to what you have to say and may be able to offer advice.

Please visit the contact us section of this website for further information on contacting us.

Yes. We do not normally investigate complaints if you have known about the problem for more than 12 months before complaining. Read the SPSO's guidance on time limits here, guidance on time limits. 

See how the SPSO considers complaints for more information.

Your complaint should include:

  • your name, address and telephone number, and an email address if available
  • whether you are complaining on behalf of someone else (if so, we usually need that person to say in writing that they want you to act on their behalf
  • details of the organisation you are complaining about
  • a concise statement of the circumstances that led to the problem, detailing who was involved, what and when the events occurred and why the situation is unfair or wrong
  • steps you have taken to resolve the complaint and the result (including a copy of the letter that sets out the final decision from the organisation about your complaint
  • copies of other relevant paper work
  • why you are unhappy with the response you have received and what you would like to happen as a result of your complaint to the SPSO.

SPSO information leaflet 1  contains advice on complaining.

We will consider your complaint to see whether it should be investigated. See 'How we handle complaints' for more information. If we decide not to take it up we will tell you why. If we decide to investigate your complaint we will write to you and the organisation about which you are complaining to explain what we are investigating.  If we decide to look at your complaint it's on the understanding that you accept the way in which we work and that we have the authority to make a final decision on the complaint.

At the end of the investigation the results will be set out in a report.  We will send you a draft of the report to give you a chance to comment on how your evidence is used.

The final report will be sent to you, the organisation about which you complained and Scottish Ministers.  A copy will also be laid before the Scottish Parliament.  At this point it becomes a public document and will be available on our website.  (You can read investigation reports we have issued in the Reports section of the website.)

If we find that a complaint is justified we usually make recommendations about what should be done to put things right.  This may be an apology or an explanation or other appropriate action.  See can you get me compensation? for more information

Where we find fault, as well as putting things right for the individual person, we want to try to prevent the same thing happening to someone else.  This is why some of our decision letters and reports have recommendations.

This could include asking the organisation to:

  • apologise
  • change their procedures
  • return the situation to how it would have been had they acted correctly in the first instance

If you want to know about our approach to looking at public authorities' decisions, please see the previous FAQ.

Compensation
Please note that the SPSO cannot award compensation.  However, if we decide that someone has suffered because of something an organisation has done wrong, we will ask the organisation to put that person in the position they would have been in had they been dealt with correctly in the first place. This may sometimes involve recommending payment. We will not award damages, since that is the function of the courts.

Special Report
If an organisation fails to implement our recommendations, the Ombudsman can lay a `special report’ before the Scottish Parliament drawing attention to the matter.   See 'special report’ in the Glossary for more information on this.

No.  Although the report is a public document and will name the organisation complained about it will not name the person who made the complaint or anyone else unless there are very good reasons for doing so.  As far as possible the report will not include information that might allow any individual to be identified.

See the Reporting section of this website for further information.

We carefully consider all complaints that we receive. See How we handle complaints for more information about this. How long this takes will vary from case to case but the following are general guidelines.  You can find more information about timescales in our section about performance indicators.

If after initial consideration it is clear that your complaint is one we can’t investigate we will try to tell you so within two weeks of receiving it. Otherwise, your complaint will receive further consideration and we will aim to tell you the outcome of that within 14 weeks of receiving the complaint.

If we then decide to move onto an investigation, leading to a report which will be laid before the Scottish Parliament, we will explain to you and the organisation complained against exactly what we are investigating.  On average, investigations take between six and eleven months.  The administrative process of drafting, finalising and laying a report before the Parliament can in itself take several weeks. Nevertheless, wherever possible we aim to complete investigations within one year of receiving a complaint.  We will always keep you informed of what is happening.   See our service standards leaflet for more information.

Yes, service users and organisations can ask us to review a decision on their case. However, the grounds on which you can ask for a review are limited. We will not accept a request for a review on the basis that someone simply disagrees with the outcome of  their complaint.

For information on our decision review process, click here: http://www.spso.org.uk/decision-review-process

 

We will consider your complaint to see whether it should be investigated. See 'How we handle complaints' for more information. If we decide not to take it up we will tell you why. If we decide to investigate your complaint we will write to you and the organisation about which you are complaining to explain what we are investigating.  If we decide to look at your complaint it's on the understanding that you accept the way in which we work and that we have the authority to make a final decision on the complaint.

At the end of the investigation the results will be set out in a report.  We will send you a draft of the report to give you a chance to comment on how your evidence is used.

The final report will be sent to you, the organisation about which you complained and Scottish Ministers.  A copy will also be laid before the Scottish Parliament.  At this point it becomes a public document and will be available on our website.  (You can read investigation reports we have issued in the Reports section of the website.)

If we find that a complaint is justified we usually make recommendations about what should be done to put things right.  This may be an apology or an explanation or other appropriate action.  See can you get me compensation? for more information

Some issues result in multiple complaints reaching us. For example, we may receive multiple complaints where the subject is a council's decision to close a school or public facilities, or where members of the local community strongly oppose a planning application.

If we decide to investigate how such a decision was made, we're very likely to take one complaint that’s generally representative of the majority, investigate that and let the other complainants know the outcome. This is what we did with a complaint on which we reported in May 2010. It was about the closure of leisure facilities in South Ayrshire and is typical of the kind of complaint we receive about decisions made by public authorities.

You should, however, note that we don't investigate just because someone's unhappy with a decision. See here for more information about this.

No - we treat each complaint on its own merits. And our Act does not allow us to accept petitions or other broad based community representations.

We take the view that a single complaint made by an individual carries just as much weight as a group of people making a complaint. So when we get a large number of complaints about a particular issue, such as a school closure or the closure of public facilities, we don’t treat the subject matter any differently from when someone brings us a complaint that only affects them. We may, however, deal with these in a particular way.

Ombudsmen deal with complaints from ordinary citizens about certain public bodies or organisations providing services on their behalf.

The SPSO looks into complaints about most organisations providing public services in Scotland.  Our job is to give an independent and impartial decision on complaints and we also have a statutory role in improving complaints handling by organisations under our remit.

Most of the work of considering complaints is done by SPSO staff called Complaints Reviewers.  We receive around 4000 complaints every year. The SPSO Act 2002 allows the Ombudsman to delegate functions, which means that he can ask other people to do things on his behalf, such as look at complaints.

The Our Process section of this website explains how we look into complaints.

Any person or organisation who is a member of the public for the purposes of the SPSO Act 2002.

You can make a complaint on your own, or jointly with someone else but what we investigate are individual complaints rather than petitions or general representations from groups.  We can't take complaints from Community Councils.

At times members of the public bring complaints to us through an independent advocate or adviser, an MSP or MP, a friend, relative or neighbour. You can ask someone else to act on your behalf in putting a complaint to the SPSO but we need written confirmation or consent that you want that person to do so.  You can give your consent on our complaint form (online).

Anonymous complaints
It is very unlikely that we could act on an anonymous complaint.  If you are concerned about the implications of making a complaint and want to discuss this with us please contact us.

Section 5 of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002 defines a ‘member of the public’. It says that we can only investigate complaints that are from a member of the public who claims to have suffered injustice or hardship because of maladministration or service failure by a relevant public authority. We took legal advice on this not long after the Act came into being, and were advised that a community council is not a ‘member of the public’ under the terms of the Act. More recently a Committee of the Scottish Parliament looked at the Act, and confirmed that a community council cannot complain directly to us.

So we do not accept complaints made by community councils on their own behalf.  A community council may, however, act on behalf of a member of the public or help the person to complain to us, as long as we have the person’s written consent for the community council to act on their behalf.

Some issues result in multiple complaints reaching us. For example, we may receive multiple complaints where the subject is a council's decision to close a school or public facilities, or where members of the local community strongly oppose a planning application.

If we decide to investigate how such a decision was made, we're very likely to take one complaint that’s generally representative of the majority, investigate that and let the other complainants know the outcome. This is what we did with a complaint on which we reported in May 2010. It was about the closure of leisure facilities in South Ayrshire and is typical of the kind of complaint we receive about decisions made by public authorities.

You should, however, note that we don't investigate just because someone's unhappy with a decision. See here for more information about this.

No - we treat each complaint on its own merits. And our Act does not allow us to accept petitions or other broad based community representations.

We take the view that a single complaint made by an individual carries just as much weight as a group of people making a complaint. So when we get a large number of complaints about a particular issue, such as a school closure or the closure of public facilities, we don’t treat the subject matter any differently from when someone brings us a complaint that only affects them. We may, however, deal with these in a particular way.

A public authority is generally entitled to make decisions about issues in their area. These are generally known as ‘discretionary decisions’. If a member of the public complains to us that there has been administrative fault or service failure by the authority in reaching a decision, and that he or she has suffered injustice or hardship because of this, we may look at the complaint. We look at the process and procedures involved.

If these were not properly followed we may recommend improvements, including appropriate redress. We cannot, however, look at the merits of the decision, with one exception - we can look at clinical decisions made by or on behalf of the NHS. If someone complains to us about a decision and they’re simply unhappy with it, we will not look at it. (There may be other routes through which they can challenge it, perhaps via the political process, or there may be some right of appeal.)

Please note that even if you complain to us about a decision, events happening because of it will not stop. For example, actions to close a school, or to collect debt that the council say you owe, would still continue. In some cases you may find that you have a separate right of appeal (for example if the decision was about your council tax banding, or on your planning application). Some of our complaint leaflets contain information about appeals that you may find helpful. Or you may prefer to call our advice line on 0800 377 7330 to discuss your concerns in more detail.

No.  Although the report is a public document and will name the organisation complained about it will not name the person who made the complaint or anyone else unless there are very good reasons for doing so.  As far as possible the report will not include information that might allow any individual to be identified.

See the Reporting section of this website for further information.

Under our legislation we must carry out our investigations in private. We cannot comment on on-going investigations and when we make reports public at the end of an investigation, we take care to anonymise individuals.

The rationale for putting reports on our website is to make the learning from complaints available to as wide an audience as possible. The learning aims to help organisations pick up good practice from one another, and to decide whether taking action may prevent the same issue from arising elsewhere. It also helps members of the public understand what we can and cannot look at, and the kind of recommendations we make.

We publish a small number of investigation reports in full (these are complaints that meet our public interest criteria) and we also publish the outcomes of around 60 decisions a month. These are on the Our Findings section of our website and can be searched by sector, organisation, subject and so on. We usually publish decision reports about six weeks after the complainant and the organisation concerned have received the final decision from our office.

Organisations usually comply with our recommendations.  However, if an organisation were to fail to implement them, the Ombudsman can lay a `special report’ before the Scottish Parliament drawing attention to the matter.

Special Report
The Ombudsman Act says that if an investigation report finds that someone suffered injustice or hardship as a result of maladministration or service failure and that injustice or hardship has not been, or will not be, remedied the SPSO can lay a 'special report' before the Scottish Parliament. So, we might consider issuing a 'special report' if we made recommendations in an investigation and the organisation concerned refused to implement them. The cost of producing and distributing a 'special report' can be recovered from the organisation against which the original complaint was made.

Since the SPSO was set up in 2002, we have not had occasion to issue a ‘special’ report.  If we did do so it would then be for the Parliament to decide what if any action it wished to take.

For more information on how the SPSO reports, please see the this section of our website.

Yes. Others may also share your experience and things may not improve if nobody complains. We can recommend changes to the systems that have led to your complaint. While we cannot force organisations to comply with our recommendations, history shows that they usually do.

See Putting Things Right for further information.

The terms of appointment of the Ombudsman are laid down by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002 (Schedule 1).  When the Act came into force the Scottish Executive explained that it was intended to maintain and reinforce the Ombudsman’s independence from the bodies which he investigates, while making the appointment process more modern and democratic. The Ombudsman is appointed by Her Majesty, on the nomination of the Parliament, for a period, not exceeding five years, determined by the Parliamentary corporation (as long as it does not exceed 5 years). The Ombudsman is eligible for a second term but re-appointment for a third term is allowed only if desirable in the public interest due to special circumstances.  The Ombudsman may be relieved of office by Her Majesty upon request or following a resolution of Parliament which, if passed on a division, must be voted for by at least two thirds of members.

In order to safeguard the independence of the SPSO, under the provisions of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002, in the exercise of the SPSO’s statutory functions, the SPSO is not subject to the direction or control of any member of the Scottish Government or the Parliamentary corporation.

The 2002 SPSO Act  provides for the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB - also referred to as the Parliamentary corporation) to pay the salary and expenses of the Ombudsman and any expenses incurred in the exercise of the Ombudsman’s function. 

The Ombudsman provides an estimate for funding for the next financial year to the SPCB, within a prescribed template. The SPCB is required to provide a provisional expenditure plan to the Parliament’s Finance Committee and the Scottish Government by 1 March each year and in the first week of November each year puts forward a further expenditure plan reflecting any changes. The Finance Committee will consider the SPCB’s provisional expenditure plans and produce a report for Parliament, which can be debated. The SPCB’s final expenditure proposals (including the Ombudsman’s budget) will then appear in the annual Budget Bill which will be voted upon by the Parliament.

Where we find fault, as well as putting things right for the individual person, we want to try to prevent the same thing happening to someone else.  This is why some of our decision letters and reports have recommendations.

This could include asking the organisation to:

  • apologise
  • change their procedures
  • return the situation to how it would have been had they acted correctly in the first instance

If you want to know about our approach to looking at public authorities' decisions, please see the previous FAQ.

Compensation
Please note that the SPSO cannot award compensation.  However, if we decide that someone has suffered because of something an organisation has done wrong, we will ask the organisation to put that person in the position they would have been in had they been dealt with correctly in the first place. This may sometimes involve recommending payment. We will not award damages, since that is the function of the courts.

Special Report
If an organisation fails to implement our recommendations, the Ombudsman can lay a `special report’ before the Scottish Parliament drawing attention to the matter.   See 'special report’ in the Glossary for more information on this.

Organisations usually comply with our recommendations.  However, if an organisation were to fail to implement them, the Ombudsman can lay a `special report’ before the Scottish Parliament drawing attention to the matter.

Special Report
The Ombudsman Act says that if an investigation report finds that someone suffered injustice or hardship as a result of maladministration or service failure and that injustice or hardship has not been, or will not be, remedied the SPSO can lay a 'special report' before the Scottish Parliament. So, we might consider issuing a 'special report' if we made recommendations in an investigation and the organisation concerned refused to implement them. The cost of producing and distributing a 'special report' can be recovered from the organisation against which the original complaint was made.

Since the SPSO was set up in 2002, we have not had occasion to issue a ‘special’ report.  If we did do so it would then be for the Parliament to decide what if any action it wished to take.

For more information on how the SPSO reports, please see the this section of our website.

Yes. Others may also share your experience and things may not improve if nobody complains. We can recommend changes to the systems that have led to your complaint. While we cannot force organisations to comply with our recommendations, history shows that they usually do.

See Putting Things Right for further information.

You can complain if you think that we have not met our service standards.  See the page Unhappy about SPSO for more information.