While we all hope that we won’t ever have to complain about medical or personal care that we or a loved one receive, sometimes things go wrong and it’s important to speak up about it.

If you, a family member or a friend, have received care that you’re unhappy with, this guide will help you to understand the complaints process and what your rights are.

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What are your rights when complaining about care?

No matter where you are receiving care, whether at home, in hospital or in a care home, your service provider is legally obliged to make sure you are safe, comfortable, treated with respect, and have a say in your treatment.

If you are unhappy with your care in any way, you have the right to complain. It’s important to flag this with your care provider so they can put things right. Feedback can also help them understand how they’re performing and improve their services in line with your needs.

If you want to learn about the exact standards your care provider must meet, you can find out more from the regulator for your region:

What care issues can you complain about?

Anything that leaves you or a loved one feeling unsettled is worth raising, but some of the most common complaints about care include:

  • Issues with timing – this could be carers arriving late for visits, taking too long, or leaving early
  • Unannounced cancellations – If your carer routinely cancels on you without good reason
  • Quality issues – if you think the care you or a loved one is receiving isn’t good enough
  • Errors – If you think that you’re receiving the wrong care, or there has been a mix up
  • Problems with medicines – if your medicines aren’t being administered properly.

This list isn’t exhaustive, so if there’s something concerning you about the care that you or a loved one is receiving, it’s worth flagging.

How do I complain about care?

Whether it’s you or a loved one experiencing care issues, complaining about it can feel difficult, especially if you are feeling angry or upset about the treatment you or they have received. There is, however, a right way and a wrong way to complain, and so it’s useful to understand each step of the process so you don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time on top of everything else.

Broadly speaking, there are three main steps in the complaints process: informal conversation, escalation to either the local authority or service provider, and then if the issue still hasn’t been resolved, taking your case to the Ombudsman.

Step one - Start with an informal conversation

The very first step of a complaints process is to have an informal chat about the problems you are experiencing. Depending on the type of issue and the severity of it you can either speak to the person you’re making the complaint against directly, their manager or the senior management team of your care provider.

Having this conversation can feel a little intimidating, so take some time to gather your thoughts and write down what you are complaining about and the resolution you want. If the complaint is about specific incidents, write down the dates they happened and the names of those involved, so it’s clear in your mind.

After you’ve had the conversation, it’s good to share your notes, along with any agreed resolutions or actions in writing with the manager of the person you talked to or the management team of your service provider. This helps create a clear paper trail of the complaint and the agreed remedy, should you need it. If you want to escalate your complaint to the council or an Ombudsman later on, you may need evidence that you’ve already tried to resolve the issue with your provider, so it’s important to do this if you think you may need to take things further.

If you can’t sort things out with an informal chat, the route you take next will be different depending on who provides your care and how you receive it. Legally anyone providing care has to have a documented complaints procedure, but generally, care falls into one of two groups – care provided by or through your local authority, or care you have sourced and paid for yourself.

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Step two - Complain to your local authority or another provider

If your complaint wasn’t resolved in step one, your next step is to go through your care provider’s complaints process.

Every care provider is legally required to have a written complaints process, whether it’s the council, NHS or private agency, so you can ask for this to make a formal complaint.

While each provider’s complaints process will be slightly different, generally, once you have complained, they will usually:

  • Send you confirmation that they’ve received your complaint
  • Arrange conversations to further understand the issues
  • Investigate the complaint
  • Notify you with their findings and their suggested next steps
  • Take action to rectify things – this could include learnings, additional training or other improvements. You will also be notified of these changes
  • They should also outline your next steps, in case you aren’t happy with the outcome.

If you are not satisfied with the resolution offered by your care provider and you aren’t able to come to an agreement with them, then you may want to escalate this further, which may mean going to your local Ombudsman.

If you live in Scotland, and you feel it is necessary, you can also report your complaint to The Care Inspectorate or to the Scottish Social Services Council, however, it is recommended that you go through your provider’s complaints process before contacting them.

Your provider’s complaints process will usually involve a similar investigation, action and resolution process as local authorities use, but their timelines may be slightly different.

Step three - Complain to the Ombudsman

If your complaint has not been resolved by either of the first two steps, your next option is to take it to the relevant Ombudsman. There are different Ombudsmen for different areas in the UK:

The Ombudsman is an independent and impartial individual, so they do not take sides. They will look at all of the evidence from you and your care provider and will form a judgement about what should be done. They will also make recommendations to put things right. An Ombudsman’s decision can take a long time, so be prepared for a bit of a wait.

If it is a private company providing your care services, the Ombudsman’s recommendation may be legally binding, but this is not always certain. If the company is in the public sector, the Ombudsman can’t make the organisation follow their recommendations, but they usually do.

If you are unhappy with the decision the Ombudsman has made then you may be able to take legal action, and you will need to hire a solicitor to do so. It’s worth bearing in mind though that any court proceeding is likely to take the Ombudsman’s investigation and recommendations into account, so it’s important to consider whether it is worth your time and energy.

What key things do you need to know when making a complaint about care?

The complaints process can feel confusing and overwhelming at times, so it’s helpful to know some key tips to help make the process as smooth as possible:

Don’t wait to make a complaint

In the majority of cases, the issue that you are complaining about needs to have happened in the last 12 months, or it won’t be considered valid. So if something has happened and you aren’t happy about it, don’t wait too long to flag it.

Document your conversations throughout

While you would hope that your complaint is dealt with quickly and efficiently, it may take some time to be resolved. Documenting your conversations and any verbal agreements with dates and names of those involved can create a paper trail of the process, which can help speed any investigation along.

Gather your information in advance

When making a complaint you might need to provide evidence or examples of the situations you’re talking about, so gathering this information in advance is helpful. When collating your information, make sure to note the dates and names of anyone involved in your complaint. If your complaint relates to any NHS services, you may also need to provide your NHS number, so it’ll be useful if you have this readily available.

Keep written complaints short

Make your complaint as concise as possible, as presenting reams of paperwork could delay the process. It may be worth getting someone to read over your complaint to make sure everything is clear and easy to understand before you submit it.

Be aware that there are different processes depending on how you receive your care

If you receive care from the NHS, you will need to follow this process. If you have your care arranged or delivered by your local authority, you will need to follow this process.

If you receive care from a private provider, you’ll need to follow their process.

Know what you want

When making a complaint about care, it can speed things up if you have an outline of what outcome you want from your complaint. For example, do you want an explanation, compensation or a change of service provider?

Do not withhold payment

If you’re really unhappy with the services that have been provided it may be tempting to withhold your money. However, in the majority of situations, there is likely to be a contractual agreement in place, so it’s best not to withhold payments unless you have had legal advice suggesting you do otherwise.

Confused about care? Lottie can help!

Finding care is tough, and we want to make sure you feel more supported. Make the care search for your loved ones easier with Lottie’s help.

Search Care Options on Lottie

What help and advice can I get with my complaint?

Making a complaint of any sort can be daunting and feel difficult to navigate, so getting some help with it can be a good idea.

Talking things through with a family member or friend can help you to clarify what you want to say, but if you want more professional advice, the following charities, businesses and services might be useful:

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