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 - Our rules and powers

Organisations usually comply with our recommendations, and we always follow up rigorously to make sure this happens.  However, if an organisation did not comply, the Ombudsman can take action to draw attention to this.

Section 16 of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002 says that we can lay a special report before the Scottish Parliament when an investigation report finds that someone suffered injustice or hardship because of maladministration or service failure, and this has not been, or will not be, remedied.

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

You can search our reports here.

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

We put reports on our website to make the learning from complaints available to as wide an audience as possible. The aim is to help organisations pick up good practice from one another, and to decide whether they need to take action that may prevent the same issue from arising elsewhere. This 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 70-80 decisions a month (decision reports). 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.

We sometimes receive multiple complaints about a council's decision to close a school or public facilities, or where members of a 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 generally representative complaint, investigate that and let the other complainants know the outcome.

For an example of this, please see our decision summary about the closure of leisure facilities in South Ayrshire which is typical of this kind of complaint.

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 building a school 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 cannot accept complaints from community councils on their own behalf.  Section 5 of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002 defines a ‘member of the public’.  We took legal advice on this, and were advised that a community council is not a member of the public under the terms of the Act.   A Scottish Parliamentary committee has also looked at this and confirmed that a community council cannot complain directly to us.

So we do not accept complaints made directly by community councils, although they may act on behalf of a member of the public or help a person complain to us. In that case, we simply need the person's written consent for the community council to act on their behalf.

Any person or organisation who is a member of the public for the purposes of Section 5 (6) of the SPSO Act 2002.  This excludes a number of public authorities, including local authorities.  We can, however, take complaints from any customer of a licensed water or sewerage provider within our jurisdiction.

You can make a complaint on your own, or jointly with someone else but we investigate  specific individual complaints, not petitions or general representations from groups.  We can't take complaints from community councils.

If you want to, you can ask an independent advocate or adviser, an MSP or MP, a friend, relative or neighbour to bring your complaint to us. If you do that, we'll need your written confirmation or consent that you want them to do so.  You can confirm this 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.

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 she can ask other people to do things on his behalf, such as look at complaints.

The How we handle complaints section of this website explains how we look into complaints.

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.

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.

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

The Ombudsman's terms of appointment are in the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002.

The Ombudsman is nominated by the Scottish Parliament, and appointed by the Queen, for a period of no more than eight years.

The Ombudsman may be relieved of office by the Queen on request or following a resolution of Parliament which must be voted for by at least two thirds of members.

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, Parliament or the Parliamentary corporation.