If you have been refused access or an adjustment, or been discriminated against, you may be able to complain to the relevant organisation. This page is focusing on service providers, public functions and similar. (For employment we recommend the Citizens’ Advice Bureau or contacting your Trades Union if you have one for support)
Prepare for your complaint
One strategy for managing ‘complaint’ is to have a clear process for escalation and how you plan to handle each stage in a process. This can include identifying some reasonable timescales to wait for responses or actions and how you will deal with various tactics used to put you off.
One of Reasonable Access’s trustees has a very simple 4 stage process for dealing with disability access requests:
- Make initial request politely with relevant information.
- Repeat request and be clear that a delayed or unsatisfactory response will lead to escalation.
- Make a formal complaint.
- Write a Letter Before Action.
Consider the outcome you want
The first thing to do is consider what outcome you want, as this will help you identify whether making a complaint is worth your time, energy and commitment.
- An apology (preferably in writing).
- Fixing an access issue.
- Staff to be trained or reminded not to refuse access.
- Reassurance that you won’t be discriminated against again.
- Remedy that reverses (as much) of the impact of discrimination as possible.
- Some kind of financial or other compensation.
Outcomes could include:
Identify the relevant organisation
Make sure you identify the correct organisation to complain to – which is not always as easy as it may seem. Trading names can be different from legal names. Large organisations can have several legal entities. Often “big brand” organisations are run as franchises which makes identifying who is liable for disability discrimination very difficult indeed. Look on the organisation’s website (if they have one) for details of their legal and trading names and ways to contact them.
You can search Companies House for UK companies and the various Charity Commissions to find a charity or company’s details.
If you are still unsure you have the right information, contact the organisation directly in writing and ask them which legal entity is responsible for dealing with a formal complaint. They should provide this information. If this information isn’t provided correctly in response to a written request, this can become evidence later.
Check if the organisation publishes a complaints process
Many organisations publish a complaints process on a website or can provide a complaints process on request. Unless you are short of time, it is best to start following the organisation’s own process and giving them a chance to resolve matters “informally”.
Organisations usually allow 10-30 working days (2-5 calendar weeks) to respond. If you need a more urgent response, then try contacting an organisation by social media, using websites like CEO Email to get the details of a senior staff member. A very large organisation will have a legal team.
Another option is to escalate immediately to a “Letter before Action“.
First complaint correspondence
Format of complaint
Email to an official email address is usually acceptable for complaints. Set email delivery and read receipts if you can as these are extra proof that you sent the email. Make sure you get the address absolutely correct.
Webform, webchat, social media
If you use an organisation’s web-form, keep a copy of the text you put into it, take screenshots as you go through it for your own records. Similarly for any kind of other private messaging or social media based system used.
Post is also an acceptable method for complaints, however in many cases it isn’t necessary and is slower and costs you the postage.
It is worth getting a Certificate of Postage which acts as free proof of postage. Alternatively you can pay extra for “signed for” delivery which can be useful if time is short as timescales for delivery are guaranteed.
In some legal circumstances you can claim postage and other costs back, so keep those proofs. If you settle, insist on your complaint-expenses being covered.
Delivering complaint in person
We strongly recommend that you do not hand-deliver complaint correspondence because of the considerable risk that you will get a negative or aggressive response from the recipient.
Telephone complaints are harder to keep a record of, so we don’t recommend this unless you need to do this for access or unavoidable reasons. Consider telephone call recording options following up by email or post with a written summary of your understanding of the call conversation and agreed outcomes.
Supported access to phones
If you do need to use video-relay, text-relay, an interpreter or lipspeaker or a third party to make your calls you may find organisations refuse to accept the call. In these instances you should ask for their “third party delegate” policy to ensure you can assign a named third-party or be alerted to you using support to use the phone.
Also consider making a separate complaint about call refusals and cite OfCom’s FAQ about disabled people using third-parties for calls.
Timescales of complaint correspondence
While organisations tend to publish timescales in their complaint processes, they often miss them. If no timescales are provided in a complaint process, we recommend 10-20 working days (2-4 weeks) for a first complaint response. We also suggest asking for an acknowledgement within 5 working days.
If a deadline or reasonable timescale is missed, we recommend allowing an extra day or two, then following up with the organisation and reminding them that you may have to escalate the complaint to “protect your legal position”.
If an organisation asks for a short extension, you should agree to it unless it will put you out of time, as you do have to show you have been reasonable at all times (even when the organisation behaves horribly!).
Content of initial complaint
Try and keep your complaint as short and polite as possible. Use headings to break up a longer complaint document.
- What happened.
- When things happened.
- Where things happened.
- Who was involved.
- What was said or done to you.
- The impact and negative effect the discrimination had on you both practical and emotional.
- Why it was unlawful and discriminatory (if you know and wish to cite this).
- The outcome you want from your complaint.
Provide brief information as you can about:
It is up to you if you include any evidence you have in your initial complaint. If you hold it back, you can see if the organisation lies and makes untrue allegations against you which becomes something you can complain about using your evidence.
Dealing with responses to complaints
Organisations can respond in various ways to complaints. We cover a few common ones in this page.
If you receive a reasonable or helpful response which acknowledges the issues you raised and provides most or all of your desired outcomes (or suitable alternatives), then all you need to do is write back to thank them and hopefully the outcomes will actually happen.
Keep evidence of issues, correspondence and any records in case the outcomes don’t happen, the same organisation fails again and you need to make further complaints. Sometimes separate complaints over time can be linked to show sustained problems and that you have tried reasonable resolution methods.
Sometimes organisations ignore complaints entirely. Sadly this is a surprisingly effective tactic which does make people feel unable to continue with complaints.
Contact the organisation again, possibly by a different method. Remind them when you made your initial complaint and include a copy of it. Ask for a rapid response (5-10 working days). If you send this reminder by post, try to get proof of postage.
If you still receive no response within the timescales, you can escalate to a Letter before Action.
Responses can often be inappropriate, they don’t acknowledge or deal with the issues you raised, they refuse to provide the required outcomes or can include nastiness of some kind. They can also manifest as different staff giving different answers. This kind of response is designed to put you off pursuing your complaint.
While you could escalate straight to Letter Before Action, you may wish to try a second round of correspondence. Many formal complaints processes have at least two levels of complaint before they are considered ‘exhausted’.
In follow up correspondence, we recommend including:
- A copy of your previous complaint.
- An explanation why the initial response is inappropriate or unacceptable.
- Re-state your issues and desired outcome.
- Requesting an appropriate response within 20 working days.
Remember, any other things the organisation or their staff claim do for other disabled people, charity or marginalised groups are irrelevant in their dealings with you and your experiences.
If no satisfactory response is received from your second complaint, escalate to a Letter Before Action.
Letter Before Action
A ‘Letter Before Action (LBA)’ (sometimes called a ‘Letter Before Claim (LBC)’) is the final letter that you should usually send before filing legal claims with the courts. These can sometimes resolve complaints that have been mishandled at earlier stages because you can include wording which advises the organisation to send the letter to their legal team and insurers – who may be more sensible than previous correspondents.
The Letter Before Action can seem scary at first, but it is mostly a highly structured and more legally formatted version of your previous complaints with links to specific parts of the law that have been broken and relevant quotes from the Statutory Code of Practice which provide a more human-readable interpretation of the law.
We have created a template Letter Before Action which you can adapt for your own use (at your own risk).
If a Letter Before Action does not achieve a suitable outcome, you probably need to consider formal legal action. The best source of information for that is currently found in Doug Paulley’s excellent DART Toolkit.