Unreasonably persistent complaints policy
We welcome feedback from service users and will always try to resolve complaints as quickly as possible.
The majority of complaints are dealt with through the complaints procedures without difficulty and the Compliments and Complaints Policy will therefore apply to most complaints received by Norfolk County Council.
Sometimes, however, complainants may be pursuing complaints in unreasonable ways. The Unreasonably Persistent Complaints Policy should only be applied where absolutely necessary and describes how the County Council may deal with complaints effectively where the complainant is unreasonably persistent in pursuing complaints or otherwise acts unreasonably.
An Unreasonably Persistent Complaints Policy helps staff and complainants to understand clearly what is expected of them, what options for action are available, and who can authorise these actions. It also assists staff to manage the expectations and behaviour of complainants while their complaint is addressed.
This policy should be read in conjunction with any other relevant County Council policies relating to exclusion of services and employee health and safety.
Most complaints are dealt with through the complaints procedures without difficulty.
Having a policy on how to deal with unreasonably persistent complainants or other unreasonable behaviour by complainants, together with guidance for staff on the complaints procedure, should help Norfolk County Council deal with complainants in ways which are demonstrably consistent and fair.
The policy covers behaviour which is unreasonable, which may include one or two isolated incidents, as well as unreasonably persistent behaviour, which is usually an accumulation of incidents or behaviour over a longer period.
The objectives of the policy are to:
- Ensure all staff understand the objectives and requirements of the Unreasonably Persistent Complaints Policy
- Promote problem solving and to avoid apportioning blame. The emphasis should be on finding a solution
- Satisfy those who complain or comment that they have been dealt with promptly, fairly, openly and honestly
- Resolve complaints quickly and as close to the point of service delivery as acceptable and appropriate
- To protect staff from abusive and unacceptable behaviour from customers
- Protect employees from unreasonable, aggressive or violent behaviour by complainants
Role of the Compliments and Complaints team
Norfolk County Council welcomes feedback from service users and will always try to resolve any complaint as quickly as possible and therefore this policy should only be applied where absolutely necessary.
With each complaint we must consider whether it is persistent, unreasonably persistent or a new complaint.
Anyone who raises informal or formal issues and complaints can expect the Compliments and Complaints team to:
- Provide details of Norfolk County Council’s complaints procedure
- Keep customers informed of how and when problems can be dealt with
- Respond within a reasonable time
- Respond with courtesy and respect
- Attempt to resolve a problem using reasonable means, in line with the appropriate complaints procedure
- Keep those involved informed of the progress
It is important to distinguish between people who make a number of complaints because they really think things have gone wrong as a result of a series of service failures, and people who are being unreasonably persistent or otherwise behaving unreasonably.
Complainants can be frustrated and aggrieved and it is therefore important to consider the substance of the complaint.
Sometimes, however, service users pursuing complaints or other issues treat staff in a way that is unacceptable.
While we recognise that some complaints may relate to serious and distressing incidents, Norfolk County Council does not tolerate abusive, offensive or threatening behaviour and will take steps to protect staff who are subject to unreasonable behaviour.
Definition of unreasonably persistent complaints and unreasonable behaviour
Unreasonably persistent complainants are those complainants who, because of the frequency, or nature, of their contacts with Norfolk County Council, hinder the County Council’s consideration of the complainant’s, or other people’s complaints.
Almost all complainants see themselves as pursuing justified complaints.
Unreasonably persistent complainants may have legitimate complaints but be pursuing them in inappropriate ways, or they may be intent on pursuing complaints which appear to have no substance or which have already been investigated and determined. Their contacts with Norfolk County Council may be very emotionally charged and distressing for all involved, or they may be agreeable but still place very heavy demands on staff time.
Sometimes the situation between Norfolk County Council and a complainant can escalate and the behaviour moves to behaviour which is unacceptable and unreasonable, for example, abusive, offensive or threatening behaviour. Such complainants are in a very small minority, but sometimes Norfolk County Council finds itself in the position of having to instigate action under this policy.
In extreme situations, the County Council may resort to involving the Police or taking legal action to address such behaviour.
Raising legitimate queries or criticisms of a complaints procedure as it progresses, for example if agreed timescales are not met, should not in itself lead to someone being regarded as an unreasonably persistent complainant.
Similarly, the fact that a complainant is unhappy with the outcome of a complaint and seeks to challenge it once, or more than once, should not necessarily cause them to be considered unreasonably persistent /vexatious.
These are some of the actions and behaviours of unreasonably persistent complainants which Norfolk County Council’s departments and the Compliments and Complaints team often find problematic. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but they are examples that frequently come to our attention:
- Refusing to specify the grounds of a complaint, despite offers of assistance
- Refusing to co-operate with the complaints investigation process while still wishing their complaint to be resolved
- Refusing to accept that certain issues are not within the scope of a complaints procedure
- Insisting on the complaint being dealt with in ways which are incompatible with the adopted complaints procedure or within good practice
- Making what appear to be groundless complaints about the staff dealing with the complaints, and seeking to have them replaced
- Changing the basis of the complaint as the investigation proceeds and/or denying statements they have made at an earlier stage. At the same time, we acknowledge that a complainant has a right to challenge our recollection/recording and to clarify how this could be resolved before we categorise the complainant’s behaviour as denying the matter
- Introducing new information, at a late stage, which the complainant expects to be taken into account and commented on, or raising large numbers of detailed, but unimportant, questions and insisting they are all fully answered
- Covertly recording meetings and conversations
- Submitting falsified documents from themselves or others
- Bringing complaints designed to cause disruption or annoyance or lacking any serious purpose or value
- Adopting a 'scattergun' approach: pursuing parallel complaints on the same issue with the Compliments and Complaints team and a variety of Norfolk County Council departments and/or other organisations
- Making excessive demands on the time and resources of staff and members with lengthy and/or repeated telephone calls, emails to numerous County Council officers, or detailed letters every few days and expecting immediate responses
- Behaviour that appears to be deliberately targeted over a significant period of time at one or more members of Norfolk County Council staff, without good cause
- Submitting repeat complaints, with minor additions/variations, so the complainant insists they are 'new' complaints which should be put through the full complaints procedure
- Refusing to accept the outcome decision of a complaint – repeatedly arguing the point and complaining about the decision, with no new evidence
- Insisting on pursuing unjustified complaints and/or unrealistic outcomes to legitimate complaints. Taking actions that are out of proportion to the nature of the complaint, even when the complaints procedure has been exhausted
- Behaviour which has a significant and disproportionate adverse effect on Norfolk County Council’s resources and other residents
- Inappropriate behaviour towards County Council staff investigating or involved in the complaint such as inappropriate use of language, aggression or violence
- Combinations of some or all of the above
The approach and procedure
It is vital that all attempts are made to maintain effective communication and relationships with complainants. Prior to taking action under this policy, the complaints case manager should ensure that:
- Every reasonable effort has been made to investigate the complaint
- Every reasonable effort has been made to communicate with the complainant
- The complainant is not now providing any significant new information that might affect the organisation’s view of the complaint
When the County Council considers that the complainant is unreasonably persistent in pursuing complaints or otherwise is acting unreasonably a risk assessment will be completed in line with health and safety policies and, if it is concluded that the behaviour is unacceptable/unreasonable, the complaints case manager will write to tell the complainant why they find the complainant’s behaviour unreasonable and/or unacceptable and ask them to change the behaviour.
Decision to restrict or terminate contact with the County Council
The following actions will be taken before a decision is taken to restrict or terminate a complainant’s contact with the County Council:
- Set up a strategy meeting to agree a cross-departmental approach
- Undertake a risk assessment. Decisions to restrict or terminate contact will be taken following a risk assessment. However, where there is an immediate risk to staff or offices the Council may make an on the spot decision to restrict access or terminate contact in the short term prior to a more detailed assessment being undertaken
- Designate a key officer to co-ordinate the organisation’s actions under this policy. Complainants will be offered, if appropriate, a meeting with a designated officer of appropriate seniority to explain what steps are being taken to resolve their complaint and why their current behaviour is seen as unreasonable. Such meetings should be undertaken in an environment that protects the safety of the designated officer. Staff should make reference to the guidance provided in the violence policy
During this meeting, the designated officer will:
- Explain to the complainant the damaging effect their contact is having on the processing of their complaint and/or other complaints, and that, if this continues, the County Council may need to limit/deny their access to the Complaints Case Manager and/or other staff
- Share the policy with the complainant and be warned that restrictive actions may need to be applied if their behaviour continues
- Provide or offer consideration of the complaints issue through another procedure (for example, an appeals process, mediation etc.) if appropriate
- Offer to assist the complainant to find a suitable independent advocate if appropriate
When making decisions on how to manage the unreasonably persistent complainant or unreasonable behaviour of a complainant, all relevant factors should be taken into account to ensure that action taken is appropriate and proportionate to the nature and frequency of the complainant’s contacts with the authority at that time.
Due consideration should be given to the complainant’s health, including any related illnesses or disabilities that may be impacting on behaviour (for example, dementia, learning disability, mental illnesses, autism etc).
If the complainant has not responded appropriately to the prior warning letter and/or the agreements during the meeting with the complainant, a decision may be made to restrict contact with the Council. The complainant will be notified in writing (or alternative formats appropriate to the individual) why it is believed their behaviour falls into the category of unreasonably persistent and/or unreasonable behaviour. The complainant will be notified what action will be taken and the duration of that action, as well as what the complainant can do to have the decision reviewed.
The following list is a ‘menu’ of possible options for managing a complainant’s involvement with the County Council from which one or more might be chosen and applied, if warranted. Any action taken should be appropriate and proportionate. It is not an exhaustive list and often the specific circumstances of the individual case will be relevant in deciding what might be appropriate action:
- Placing limits on the number and duration of contacts with staff per week or month
- Limiting the complainant to one medium of contact (telephone, letter, email etc) and/or requiring the complainant to communicate only with one named member of staff
- Refuse to register further complaints about the same matter and only acknowledge further correspondence
- Only meet with the complainant in the presence of a witness
- Where a complainant’s behaviour is unreasonable and threatens the safety and/or welfare of staff, the County Council may decide to terminate contact with the complainant
- Other action may be taken, for example reporting the matter to the police or taking legal action. Where such action is necessary the County Council may not give prior warning
- Only meet the complainant at County Council Offices and by appointment only
Where following restriction of access being implemented a complainant continues to behave in a way that is unacceptable or where the behaviour is so extreme that it threatens the immediate safety and welfare of staff, the County Council may:
- Terminate contact
- Temporarily or permanently restrict/not allow access to Norfolk County Council offices
- Report the matter to the police
- Take legal action
Reviewing the decision to restrict contact
When imposing this policy and placing a restriction on contact, the County Council will specify a review date, usually 6 months from the initial decision.
The review should be carried out by the Departmental representative and the Customer Services Complaints Manager to consider whether the restrictions can be lifted or modified, or should continue. The complainant will be notified of the outcome of the review.
Restrictions should be lifted and relationships returned to normal unless there are grounds to continue with the restrictions. If the restrictions are to continue, the County Council will explain the reasons to the complainant and state when the restrictions will next be reviewed.
Referral to the Local Government Ombudsman
In extreme cases the relationship between the complainant and the County Council may breakdown. In these cases the County Council may consider the following actions:
- Early referral to the Local Government Ombudsman before all stages of the complaints procedure has been exhausted – there is scope for early referral for social care complaints. However, this can only be done with the agreement of the complainant
- Explain in writing to the complainant that the County Council will not process the complaint or continue to process the complaint and inform them of their right to approach the Local Government Ombudsman
Appeals against decisions
Complainants must be informed in writing of the County Council’s decision resulting from application of this policy and procedure.
They should also be given information on how to appeal any decision.
An appeal will be heard by a review panel made up of a member of staff outside of the service area complained about, as well as the Customer Services Complaints Manager and the Departmental representative.
The panel will write to the complainant with their decision which will be final.
The Local Government Ombudsman has a role to examine complaints about the County Council and this includes the administration of the complaints procedures and County Council policies. Therefore, complainants who are dealt with under this policy and procedure should be given information on their right to contact the Local Government Ombudsman if they feel the County Council has not acted correctly in the administration of the complaint.
New complaints from people who have been subject to this policy will be dealt with on their merits. It is recognised that any new complaint may represent a genuine service failure and therefore needs to be reviewed objectively regardless of who is bringing the complaints.
Once the complaint has been considered, a risk assessment will also be carried out based on past and current knowledge of the complainant’s behaviour and the likelihood of re-occurrence of any unacceptable behaviour.
Any decision not to pursue a new complaint must be clearly recorded on the complaints database.
Recording actions and contacts with the complainant
Any decision to apply this policy must be notified to the Customer Services
Complaints Manager and recorded on the complaints database.
The Compliments and Complaints team will keep adequate records to show:
- When a decision is taken not to apply the policy when a member of staff asks for this to be done. The member of staff will be informed of the decision
- When a decision is taken to make an exception to the policy
- When a decision is taken not to put a further complaint from such a complainant through the complaints procedure for any reason
- When a decision is taken not to respond to further correspondence, the Compliments and Complaints team will make sure that any further letters, faxes or emails from the complainant are checked to ensure that any significant new information is picked up and addressed
- Any future contacts with the complainant must be recorded
Complaints made to the County Council will be treated in confidence.
The Compliments and Complaints team will only pass the details of unreasonably persistent complainants and/ or unreasonable complainant behaviour to those County Council staff members and partner organisations who need to know in order to implement the policy or for reasons of protecting staff safety.
Confidentiality cannot, however, be guaranteed where a vulnerable person is considered to be at risk and safeguarding procedures apply. In these circumstances, the County Council may have to share the information with other departments within the Council or other external agencies.
Customers who make their complaints public in the media may forfeit their right to anonymity and the right to confidentiality.
Responsibility for the procedures
Overall responsibility for the Unreasonably Persistent Complainants Policy will lie with the Practice Director, nplaw in the role of monitoring officer under the Local Government and Housing Act 1989.
The administration of the Unreasonably Persistent Complainants Policy lies with the Head of Customer Services and Communications.
The Compliments and Complaints team will take responsibility for the application of all aspects of the procedures at departmental and organisational level.
A complaints case manager will be assigned to all unreasonably persistent complainants entering the formal complaints process, providing an objective liaison role between the complainant and the organisation.
The Customer Service Complaints Manager will act as overall coordinator for unreasonably persistent complaints handling.
The operation of the Unreasonably Persistent Complainants Policy and statistical information will be presented as part of the compliments and complaints half-yearly report to the Corporate Resources Overview and Scrutiny Panel and in the annual report provided to Cabinet.