COVID-19 update

Our office is currently not open to visitors. We are responding to emails; however, due to the impact on our staffing resources, our response times will be affected.  From Monday 25 May 2020, we will also be operating a limited telephone service.  Our Scottish Welfare Fund review service is still available by telephone as normal.  Please read our information for customers and organisations

Frequently Asked Questions - Complaining to the SPSO

Our staff have the skills, competencies and experience to investigate complaints about public services in Scotland. They are selected on the basis of these skills.  Previous experience of working in the sectors that fall within our jurisdiction can also be helpful to our investigations.  It means the SPSO team, including our advisers, have a knowledge of and understand the context of your complaint, which in turn means you can have confidence in the SPSO’s handling of your complaint.

We understand though, that this past experience may occasionally concern some people.  Past experience in the public sector is not automatically a conflict of interest but there are times when it might be. We recognise a potential conflict of interest may arise where one of our staff has previously worked with or knows, for other reasons, an individual involved in handling a complaint that is brought to SPSO.  As a general principle, members of staff don’t normally work on any complaints about a body in which they worked (or with which they worked very closely) in the four years before taking up their position with SPSO.  This is, however, at the discretion of the Ombudsman who may take a different view, depending on individual circumstances.  If this is the case we will explain why and make sure we consider your concerns.

We also have a Conduct and Behaviour Policy which requires all staff to formally disclose wherever a potential conflict of interest may arise within their employment.  This, together with our approach to quality checking the work we do demonstrates that we have robust measures in place to identify and manage any risk of a perception of bias, or indeed a conflict of interest.

It's really helpful if you send us your complaint on our complaints form.  You can complete it online or download a copy to fill in (PDF). You can also ask us to send you a paper copy by calling our Freephone number (0800 377 7330).  We need to see :

  • your name, address and telephone number, and email address if you have one
  • whether you are complaining on behalf of someone else (if so, we usually need them to say in writing that they want you to act for them - they can do that on the form)
  • the organisation you are complaining about
  • a short explanation of what led to the problem, saying who was involved, what happened and when, and why you think the situation is unfair or wrong
  • what you've done to try to sort out the complaint and the result of that (including a copy of the letter from the organisation giving their final decision about your complaint)
  • copies of other paper work that we need to see to understand the complaint (please only send the most relevant information, if we need more we'll ask for it)
  • why you're unhappy with the response you have received and what you would like to happen as a result of your complaint to us.

You may find our leaflet How to complain to the SPSO helpful - it gives some advice about complaining to us.

Yes.  We're open from 9.00 until 5.00 Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. On Tuesdays we open at 10.00 and close at 5.00.

During these times, you can come in and talk to us about a complaint that you are thinking of bringing here.  The person you talk to won’t be able to give you a decision there and then, but he or she will listen to what you have to say and may be able to offer advice.

Please visit the contact us section of our website for more information about where we are and how to contact us.

Yes. We do not normally investigate complaints if you have known about the problem for more than 12 months before complaining.  We may, however, decide to look at the complaint if certain circumstances stopped you from making it earlier.

You can read our guidance about these time limits here.

Yes it is, and we have a Freepost and Freephone number for our customers. See the Contact us section for details.

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.

If after reading the list you aren't sure if we can look at a complaint about an organisation, please call us on our Freephone number above.

The law says that the SPSO must carry out investigations in private.  This means we cannot give any details to anyone who is not involved in the complaint about investigations that are in progress.

At the end of our investigations, when we publish reports on our website or in other forms of communication like newsletters, the media sometimes report them.  This happens in a small number of cases.  Before publication, we remove any information which could be used to identify anyone. In the event that there is press interest, our office will not provide any more information than is in the report.

We have a communications team who handle press enquiries.  If you think you are about to have a decision from us shortly and you would like to discuss any aspect of press coverage or publication, please contact us on 0131 240 8849 or by using our online contact form

At the end of our investigation we will tell you our decision. We will also send the decision to the organisation you complained about and we are likely to publish information about it. We do this in order to share learning from the complaint, to help public services improve. We publish our decisions in two types of report.

Public decision report

This is a summary of a decision letter. We send these reports to the Parliament and Scottish Ministers and publish them on our website and sometimes in other forms of communication like newsletters. We usually publish decision reports about six weeks after making our decision. In a small number of cases we do not publish decision reports, usually to prevent the possibility of someone being identified. For the same reason we sometimes we publish the report, and anonymise the organisation complained about (for example, we call the organisation A Council).

If you have requested a review of your decision, we will not publish the decision report until the review is complete.

Public detailed investigation report

This is a detailed report, usually where a case has a wider public interest. We send these reports to the Parliament and Scottish Ministers and publish them on our website and in other forms of communication like newsletters. We publish these reports at the same time as giving them to the people involved in the complaint. 

You can complain if you think that we have not met our service standards.  See our Customer Service Standards page for more information.

Yes they can.  You will have to give them permission to do that, which you can give on our complaint form or in a letter.  We can send you the complaint form or a letter to sign if you contact us.  If your complaint is about the National Health Service, we may also ask for your permission to access your health records.

The SPSO operates on the Scottish Government’s IT network. The two main reasons for this are that it allows us to conduct our business in a secure IT environment with an exceptional level of online protection, and because sharing services with other publicly-funded organisations is highly cost-effective. Using this network in no way impinges on our independence or the confidentiality of our communications and we have strict agreements with all parties involved in supporting and maintaining our IT services to ensure this.

Yes. If no-one complains, other people may share the same experience and things may not improve.

When we make a decision on a complaint, we may make recommendations.  We expect organisations to carry these out and we check to make sure they do.  These are real outcomes for the people concerned, and so our complaints investigations can lead to wider improvement across a council, health board etc and sometimes across a whole sector.  You can search the reports of our investigations here, and you can find more information about how we put things right here.

When we finish an investigation, we send our decision to the complainant and to the organisation that has been complained about.  We also lay reports of investigations or decisions before the Parliament, and send them to Scottish Ministers.  Laying documents before the Parliament means that we send them to the Parliament, who hold a copy in their permanent reference collection and place a notification of receipt in the Business Bulletin which includes details of current, future and past business of the Parliament. When documents are laid before the Parliament they become public documents and we publish them on our website and in other forms of communication like newsletters.

Approach the organisation that you are unhappy with and ask them to sort out the problem.   They should have a complaints procedure and we normally expect you to have used all the stages of that procedure before we consider a complaint.  This is so that the organisation has the chance to put things right for you.  

Find out more about making a complaint to a public organisation.

We can take complaints about schools. You will need to complete the local complaints process first and it is also important that you know there are some restrictions on what we can look at.

We can take complaints from children who are old enough to understand the process and, if your child is over 12 years old, we will ask you to show you have their consent if you are taking the complaint forward on their behalf. Our complaint form includes a section that lets you do this easily. If you have any questions about this, please contact us.

In terms of restrictions our Act says that we can’t look at '… action concerning the giving of instruction, whether secular or religious, or conduct, curriculum or discipline.’ So we can’t look directly at what’s taught, how it’s taught, or how/if a child has been disciplined at school.

We can look at whether the school applied policies and procedures properly, such as those on bullying, or whether they have proper policies and procedures about something. We publish decisions of most of the complaints we’ve looked at and you can see and search for examples of what we do in the “our findings” section.

In some situations, we are not the only option and there may be other options better for you. If you bring a complaint to us and we think there is a more appropriate route for you, we will let you know and direct you to that option. For example, there are specific processes in place if you think that your child hasn’t been provided with appropriate additional support for learning. This includes difficulties with getting an assessment. If we think your complaint raises such concerns, we will direct you to those options. You can find more about the options around additional support by contacting Enquire http://enquire.org.uk/ (the Scottish advice centre for additional support for learning). There is also more information on the Scottish Government's website.

We will look at your complaint to see whether it can and should be investigated. See 'How we handle complaints' for more detailed information.  We may contact you for more information, or call you to discuss the complaint.

If we decide not to take your complaint further we will tell you why. If we decide to investigate it we will write to you, and to the organisation about which you are complaining.  We will explain to them what we are investigating.  We will also give you and the organisation contact details for the Complaints Reviewer who is handling your complaint.  If we decide to look at it further 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.

If your complaint is complex, we may need to transfer it to our Investigation Team for further investigation.  We will tell you if we do this and give you the contact details for the new Complaints Reviewer.

If we investigate your complaint, at the end of the investigation we will either write to you and the  organisation involved with our decision, or we will issue a public interest report.  Most investigations end in a letter, and we publish short summaries of most of those decisions on our website.  You can look for summaries that we have published in the decision reports section of the website.

If we prepare a public interest report, we will send you a draft to give you a chance to comment on the factual accuracy of the report. The final report will be laid before the Scottish Parliament and sent to you, the organisation about which you complained and Scottish Ministers.  At this point it becomes a public document and will be available on our website.  You can look for investigation reports we have issued in the investigation 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, an explanation or other action needed to put things right.

While the SPSO Act does not give a definition of maladministration, we use the following as examples of the kind of failings that come under the heading of maladministration:

  • unreasonable delay
  • rudeness
  • failure to apply the law or rules properly.

There may be other failings that are also ‘maladministration’ – the most quoted definition is that of a Cabinet Minister, Richard Crossman, who in 1967 who listed 'bias, neglect, inattention, delay, incompetence, ineptitude, perversity, turpitude and so on'.  However, as a judge - Lord Denning - noted in 1979 'and so on would be a long and interesting list, clearly open-ended, covering the manner in which a decision is reached or discretion is exercised ...'.

For further advice, please contact our Assessment and Guidance team

We aim to close 95% of our cases within 12 months of receiving the complaint, although many are completed in less time. 

It is difficult to predict how long an individual investigation will take, as each case is different.  Generally, they take longer where they are complex, involve a lot of written material, where we need to make detailed enquiries, or if we need to get professional advice.  We will contact you and the organisation regularly, to update you on progress.

You normally need to complain to us in writing.  You can do so using our online form, in person, or to our Freepost address.

There's an online complaint form on this website or you can print off a complaints form.

If you need advice or have difficulty with the forms or with access to our website, please tell us.  Our contact us section will help you get in touch with our advice team and our accessibility section has information about what you can do if you have any special needs.