Stages in our process
This is the initial receipt stage where we check if we have enough information about the complaint, that the complainant has first complained to the relevant organisation, that the complaint is mature (i/e – that it has completed the relevant organisation’s complaints process) and that the matter is one we are allowed to look at.
This is where we confirm that the matter is one we are allowed to look at and is in jurisdiction and start gathering the information we will need for an investigation. Some cases that could be investigated are closed at this stage if we are able to resolve them with the organisation, or if we consider there would be no significant benefit, or achievable outcome, from a full investigation.
This is where we conduct the investigation and reach a decision on the complaint.
Enquiries are a mix of telephone and online contacts. In responding to these, our advice team provide information and support and where appropriate refer people to other organisations that may be better placed to help.
This is an enquiry or a complaint that has been sent to us too early – i.e. before it has completed the relevant organisation’s complaints process. Prior to April 2016, we recorded premature complaints received by phone as advice stage complaints. From April 2016, a number of these (the very quickly resolved ones) would be logged as signposting enquiries and not included in the premature rate calculation. In 2016-17 we had a total of 1,142 premature complaints plus a further 424 premature enquiries which would mostly have been classed as complaints in previous years.
Out of jurisdiction
Some enquiries or complaints are about an organisation or a subject that the law says we cannot investigate. Sometimes there are complex technical or legal issues involved. If so, it can take time to check whether we can investigate. Where we find the law says we cannot take a complaint, we provide advice, where possible, about who might be able to look at it.
Complaints 'fit for SPSO'
These are complaints that we are able to investigate. This normally means that they have gone through the complaints process of a relevant organisation, and are about something that we can look at by law (the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002).
Not duly made or withdrawn
Sometimes people choose not to pursue their complaint. This may be for personal reasons or because of a change in circumstances. Sometimes complainants do not give us the information that we need to take things further, or they may simply stop contacting us. Sometimes the organisation concerned has resolved the complaint to the person's satisfaction.
Outcome not achievable
This refers to the situation where we have not taken a complaint forward because it is not possible for us to achieve what the person wants us to do as a result of their complaint. An example of this would be where the person tells us that the only outcome they want is for a member of staff to be sacked. As disciplinary matters are for the organisation concerned to decide on, we cannot have a person sacked and so the outcome the complainant said they wanted would be unachievable. We do not often record this kind of outcome as, normally, when we explain that we cannot achieve something, we also then discuss what alternative outcome might be appropriate as a result of the complaint.
Complaints are more likely to be withdrawn before investigation has begun, but sometimes they are withdrawn during the investigation. If this happens when a case is close to completion and the Ombudsman feels it is in the public interest to publish her findings, she is entitled to do so. This course of action, however, is rare and before doing so we always consider the complainant's reasons for wishing to withdraw a complaint.
In some cases, we receive complaints where it appears that we may be able to achieve the outcome being sought by the person complaining without carrying out an investigation. In these cases, we may contact both parties in order to try and resolve the case. If, following our intervention, an organisation offers a resolution which is acceptable to the individual, or where we consider that the resolution offered is appropriate and addresses any outstanding injustice, we may close the case as resolved. Before doing so we would always consider whether it would be in the public interest to carry out an investigation, even where a satisfactory outcome has been achieved for the individual who has complained.
In some cases, we will decide that, even where a complaint is one we could investigate, it would not be proportionate for us to do so given the need to use public resources effectively. The circumstances where we may make this decision include:
- Where the evidence suggests that the organisation being complained about (or another scrutiny body) has already carried out a thorough investigation into the complaints and steps have been taken to remedy the injustice. In these cases a review by us would serve no useful purpose.
- Where the sole outcome being sought by the person is not one we can achieve by investigating and making recommendations (for example where the complainant wants disciplinary action against staff) and there is no public interest in investigating further.
- Where the matter has already been investigated thoroughly by another public scrutiny body and the outcomes are similar to those that SPSO could achieve, then the complaint should be closed without investigation, unless there is public interest in investigating.
- Where investigating a complaint would not achieve any practical benefit for the person complaining, the organisation concerned or the public generally, because the injustices suffered are insignificant and have little or no practical consequences for the individual.
- Where it appears that an organisation has failed to respond to the complaint in line with their complaints procedure (for example where they have not addressed the complaints made to them) we may refer the case back to them to re-investigate. This reinforces the principle that they are responsible for providing proper responses to complaints and helps improve complaints handling standards.
Complaints where the outcome was ‘upheld’ or ‘some upheld’ are those where we investigated, and found that something went wrong. To recognise the validity of the complainant’s experience, we uphold complaints wherever we find fault, even if this has already been recognised by the organisation. People come to us for an external, independent judgement and if we find something went wrong it is important for the complainant that we acknowledge this. We also include how the organisation responded to the complaint and any action that they took to put things right. Where an organisation responded well, we may also commend them for acknowledging the mistakes and the action they took to resolve this for the complainant.
All these complaints were ‘fit for SPSO’, and we gave a decision on them at the investigation stage of our process. Some of these result in us sending the organisation and the complainant a decision letter. We also publish a short summary of most of these complaints and their outcomes on our website. Complaints that meet our public interest criteria are published in full.
Partially upheld and discontinued (obsolete outcomes)
We no longer use 'partially upheld' as an outcome. Many complaints have a number of aspects. We give a separate finding on each of these, from the list of outcomes above.[In the 'Our findings' section of our website we use the overall term 'some upheld'. This identifies where we have investigated a number of individual aspects, and have upheld one or some of these.] Cases were normally 'discontinued' when something happened that meant it was no longer appropriate to pursue the matter. This is now covered by other outcomes above