Alternatives to legal complaints
If you don’t want to deal with the legal system and its risks, or you are out of time for a legal complaint you may be able to complain about access failings to regulators or ombudsman services.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have a single ombudsman service. England has several, depending on the sector. As there are so many ombudsman services, we have just covered a few of them. Other ombudsman services can be found at the Ombudsman Association.
Before you contact the regulator or ombudsman you will usually be expected to have:
- Exhausted the organisation’s complaints process and
- Be within 12 months of the incident(s) you are complaining about
Do check each ombudsman’s requirements individually as some do vary. If you are out of time, or have not completed the required pre-steps, contact the ombudsman with a brief explanation and ask if they will consider your complaint. Legitimate reasons for extending time or not following steps could include well-documented health issues or organisations you are complaining to refusing to engage with you properly, accessibly or in a timely manner.
Accessibility of ombudsman services
Some of the ombudsman services specifically welcome requests for adjustments or proactively provide alternative formats of complaints materials, others do not.
All of the ombudsman services are bound by the Equality Act (or DDA for Northern Ireland) so if you need them to adjust their information, working practices or processes to make them accessible to you, we recommend contacting them and asking for the adjustments you need. Many are now on Twitter, have email or have phone access.
Ombudsman services have been sued under disability discrimination laws – such as in the case of Blamires v LGO (Local Government Ombudsman). If you find an ombudsman is not making adjustments, do complain to them and remind them of this case.
Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO)
We are mentioning The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) here because you often need to deal with the Data Protection Act 2018 or Freedom of Information Act 2000 when dealing with discrimination complaints.
The ICO provides information and advice about data and information rights. Your first step should always be to ask the organisation to carry out an internal review and if that doesn’t work you can then report them to the ICO.
The ICO is notoriously slow (taking around a year) to investigate and issue a ‘decision notice’ but they can be useful to mention to misbehaving organisations who do sometimes behave better after you show you know your information rights.
Role of the ombudsman
There are a few different types of ombudsman services depending on whether they are statutory, non-statutory or voluntary.
Most ombudsman services will not have a remit to specifically determine ‘discrimination’ under the Equality Act (or DDA), but if the ombudsman is a public body, it may have obligations under the Equality Act Section 149, the ‘Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED)’ or Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act (1998).
2019 Select Committee inquiry and report
The recent Westminster House of Commons Women and Equality Select Committee Inquiry into Equality Act Enforcement (#EnforcingEquality) dedicated a whole chapter of their report to the responsibilities that different enforcement bodies.
In short, it was recommended that ombudsman take on more complaints and responsibility.
Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO)
The Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman (PHSO) is the final stage for complaints about NHS services and government departments in England including:
- NHS Hospitals.
- General Practice Surgeries (GPs).
- NHS-Funded care if it was provided by a private hospital.
- NHS continuing healthcare.
- Government departments (local government is covered by the LGO).
You must have completed the relevant organisation’s complaints process. For NHS services this usually involves 2-3 rounds of correspondence with the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) or complaints teams. Often the NHS service will tell you when you have exhausted their processes and can go to the PHSO.
The PHSO has various format (PDF, Word, Large Print and Easy Read) complaints forms. Make sure you select the appropriate NHS or government department form. You can then email your completed form back to them. You can also contact the PHSO by email or telephone. The outcomes of complaint outcomes are often anonymised and published.
Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO)
The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGO) can deal with complaints about:
- Councils (local authorities).
- Private or publicly funded adult social care providers (care homes, home-care agencies).
- Some organisations that provide local public services.
The LGO publish a searchable database of decisions
Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS)
The Financial Ombudsman Service (FOS) can handle complaints about banking and insurance. They publicly say they will consider the Equality Act when dealing with claims about discrimination. Financial organisations almost always accept the FOS’s decisions which bind them to comply with instructions to:
- Put things right including changing policies and practicies.
- Compensation for financial losses, inconvenience or distress.
Health and Safety Executive (HSE)
The Rail Ombudsman is an Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) service using mediation or arbitration. All Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are required to subscribe. If you remain unhappy and have exhausted a train operating company’s complaints procedure, you have the right to appeal the matter to this organisation.
Unusually the Rail Ombudsman has specifically been given the remit of dealing with cases under the Equality Act. However some disabled people are concerned due to their lack of experience of access matters (they were previously the furniture ombudsman), their slow process (months) and their limited reparation capacity. They have a statutory maximum award of £2,500, limited ability to mandate change, and most awards for damages are below £100. If you do use this service, keep an eye on the timescale as it may take you beyond the 6 months period within which you can take a case to the county court.
Single Public Service Ombudsman
In Wales, there is a single public services ombudsman who can handle complaints against a range of bodies.
There is an online complaints form which helps you identify who you are complaining about. There are also PDF complaint forms including an Easy Read form.
Healthcare Inspectorate Wales
The Healthcare Inspectorate Wales hosts inspection reports and can be contacted with complaints about Welsh healthcare.
Single Scottish Publics Services Ombudsman (SPSO)
In Scotland, there is a single “Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO)” for all public services.
They provide free and independent complaints handling about devolved public services in Scotland including:
- The health service.
- Scottish Government.
- Water and sewerage providers.
- Universities and colleges.
The SPSO cannot overturn decisions of public service bodies but they can check decisions were properly made and recommend that things are put right. Guidance is provided about how to make complaints and the form itself is online, you have to upload copies of your complaints and answers so far.
Scotland has a Care Inspectorate which can inspect healthcare services and accept individual complaints.
Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO)
The Northern Ireland Public Services Ombudsman (NIPSO) can investigate complaints about:
- Financial services organisations (banks, insurance etc).
- The police.
- Transport providers (buses, trains, ferries, planes).
- Utility providers (gas, electricity, water, coal, telephones, mobile phones, internet).
- Public services providers.
Complaint forms are available online, or as a PDF.
Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA)
The Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA) inspects health and social care services in Northern Ireland.
While complaints cannot be investigated, concerns can be be “fedback” to RQIA to feed into inspections.