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. This list provides information about who we can look at complaints about (PDF 32KB).

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.

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.

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

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.

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

There's an online complaint form on this website or you can print off a complaints form (PDF 81KB).

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.

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.

We aim to be accessible to all, and will make reasonable adjustments to assist you wherever possible, if you tell us what you need us to do.  You can read more information here about how we may be able to help you access our service.

 

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.

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 82 KB). 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 (PDF, 548KB) helpful - it gives some advice about complaining to us.

We will look at your complaint to see whether it 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, 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.

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 the results will be set out in 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 of it 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 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 or an explanation or other appropriate action.

We usually make recommendations where we find that something has gone wrong, to help put things right and to try to stop the same thing happening to someone else. We always follow these up to make sure that they are carried out. You can search our reports and recommendations here.

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. 

No.  We do not name the person who made the complaint, and usually refer to them as Mr/Mrs/Ms C.

More information about how we investigate and report on complaints.

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

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

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 ...'.

As always, call our helpline for advice.

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.

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.

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 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, 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.

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 the results will be set out in 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 of it 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 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 or an explanation or other appropriate action.

We use professional advisers when looking at some of our complaints.  In 2016-17, a bank of independent, Scotland-based professional advisers was set up that provides our investigators with advice on health matters, including specialist advisers in medicine, midwifery, mental health, obstetrics and gynaecology, dentistry, nursing, social work, psychiatry and GP services. There are also advisers who specialise in planning, equalities, environmental health and water services. The benefit of using advisers based in Scotland is that they are fully aware of the Scottish context, which can be different from that elsewhere in the UK. It also allows us to access advice directly and quickly.  We can also access the English Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman’s panel of clinical advisers, which covers a wider range of specialisms.

Advisers provide us with independent expert advice on what it was reasonable to expect in the circumstances of a case. They may explain technical terms and information or point us to relevant guidance and legislation.  We take their advice into account along with all other evidence and information in deciding whether to uphold a complaint.

 

Yes, the person who made the complaint and the organisation involved can ask us to review the decision.  However, the grounds on which you can ask for this are limited. We will not accept a request for review on the basis that someone simply disagrees with the outcome of  their complaint.

 

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. 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 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.

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 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.

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.

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. 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 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.

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.

No.  We do not name the person who made the complaint, and usually refer to them as Mr/Mrs/Ms C.

More information about how we investigate and report on complaints.

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.

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.

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 ...'.

As always, call our helpline for advice.

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.

We usually make recommendations where we find that something has gone wrong, to help put things right and to try to stop the same thing happening to someone else. We always follow these up to make sure that they are carried out. You can search our reports and recommendations here.

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 complaints reviewers always check with organisations to make sure that they have done as we recommended.   We expect to see firm evidence that our recommendations have been implemented.  If we find that they have not, we will go back to the organisation until we are satisfied that what we recommended has been done.

You have to tell people that they have the right to complain to us, that there's a time limit for doing so, and how to contact us.  This is outlined in section 22* of the  Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act.  When you write to someone at the end of your complaints process you must explain this.  The model complaints handling procedures for each sector outline the information you are required to use - these can be accessed on our Valuing Complaints website.

[*Section 22 (2) (a) says that you should make information about SPSO, including our contact details, generally available in the information you publish about your complaints process.  As the SPSO is the final stage in that process, we normally expect people to complete your complaints process before coming to us.]

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. 

Every month we publish reports of our investigations.

We publish detailed sectoral complaints reports, an annual report and statistics.  We also publish annual letters to councils, health boards, water authorities, the Scottish Prison Service and the Scottish Housing Regulator.

There may be information about your organisation in any or all of our publications.

When we publish our detailed investigation and decision reports, we normally identify the organisation involved. Where, however, we think that doing so could identify an individual, for example, in a small GP practice or in a complaint about school bullying, we are likely to anonymise the organisation. We also reserve the right to exempt some reports from publication, usually to prevent the possibility of someone being identified.

You can search our published investigation reports and decision reports here.

Please contact our communications team on 0131 240 8849 if you can't find what you're looking for.

You must make arrangements for an investigation report to be publicly available for at least three weeks (unless the Ombudsman directs otherwise).  This is to allow any person to inspect it at any reasonable time, and to obtain a copy of it, or any part of it.  You must also publicise those arrangements.  In practice, this can simply mean publishing the report on your website and letting people know it is there.  It is, however, for you to decide how to publish these and you may use other relevant methods should you choose to do so.

Section 15(4) of the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman Act 2002 sets out this requirement.