Complaining about health and social care

A brief legal guide to complaining about health and social care in England or Wales, including details of where you can go for further information or support.

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About complaints

If someone is unhappy with the service received from NHS or adult care services, there are a number of steps they can take. A brief explanation about taking legal proceedings for clinical negligence is set out in another briefing called Clinical Negligence, which outlines the legal process for making a legal claim for compensation because of a medical mistake.

Legal proceedings can be very costly and time-consuming. A more appropriate and effective way to get an apology or an explanation may be to use the complaints procedure.

Helpful tips when making a complaint

  • Date the letter of complaint.
  • Provide your name and address.
  • Give a clear account of what happened and what went wrong.
  • Include all the relevant facts such as dates and names but try to keep the letter concise.
  • Attach copies of relevant documents or photographs and list the items enclosed in the letter.
  • Explain what the solution should be e.g. apology, better service or explanation.
  • Keep the tone polite.
  • Identify the date by which a reply is expected.
  • Keep a copy of the letter and of any enclosures.
  • Send the letter by recorded delivery.

Urgent cases

If someone has an urgent need for a health or social care service which has been refused or withdrawn, it is helpful to get legal advice about the best way to challenge this, in other words, whether to use the complaints process first, or whether it is possible to take immediate legal steps to access the service they need. If there is an urgent need for a service to be provided it is helpful to get community care legal advice.

Complaints procedures can also be used before starting legal proceedings. However, it is important to understand that there are time limits for bringing legal proceedings and using a complaints procedure does not extend the relevant time limit. So it is advisable to get specialist advice if someone is considering legal proceedings and wants to complain as well. Also a complaint will not usually be investigated once legal proceedings have started.

Bringing a legal claim

If someone has an urgent need for a service or treatment now from a public body, and it is not possible to wait until the complaints procedure is followed, it may sometimes be possible to use a legal procedure called judicial review to challenge the lawfulness of the decision to refuse or fail to supply that service. Time limits for this are short and a judicial review must be made promptly and at least within three months, so it is important to obtain advice from a community care solicitor as soon as possible.

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