Complaining about the NHS or social services
This section explains how you can make a complaint about the NHS or social services and what support you can get. This information is for people affected by mental illness in England who are 18 or over and their carers, relatives and friends.
If you would like more advice or information you can contact our Advice and Information Service by clicking here.
- You can complain about an NHS service or social services if there’s an issue you’re unhappy about.
- You usually have to make your complaint within 12 months of the problem. Sometimes you can complain later than this.
- An advocacy service or PALS might be able to help you with your complaint.
- The NHS or social services will let you know when they get your complaint. They should do this within 3 working days.
- Once the service has investigated your complaint, they should give you a response.
- If you are unhappy with the response, you can take your complaint to an independent service, called the Ombudsman. They will look into things further.
- There are other options as well as complaining. The best option for you will depend on what you are trying to achieve as an outcome.
Before raising a complaint
How can I deal with the issue without complaining?
You could try and sort the issue informally before you think about complaining. This is often the quickest and easiest way to sort a problem.
- talk to someone at the service to see if they can help, or
- get in touch with your local NHS Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) if your complaint is about the NHS. They can sometimes sort issues without needing to go through the formal complaints’ procedure. You can search for your local service by following the below website link: www.nhs.uk/Service-Search/Patient-advice-and-liaison-services-(PALS)/LocationSearch/363
You can explain:
- what’s happened,
- why you aren’t happy, and
- what you’d like to happen next.
If you still can’t get the issue sorted out, you can then think about making a formal complaint.
How and who should you complain to?
Should I complain and how do I do it?
Is making a complaint the right option for me?
Making a complaint might be the right option for you if you want:
- an apology, or
- for the NHS or social services to change something, like your treatment or your waiting time for a social care assessment.
Complaining might be the right option for you if you have already tried to informally sort out the issue.
Usually, you can only claim compensation if you have been physically or mentally hurt because of the negligence of the NHS or social services. To claim compensation, you usually need to take legal action. See further down this page for more information.
How do I complain?
You can make your complaint to a member of staff:
- in person,
- by phone, or
- in writing by email or letter, for example.
You can complain to the service manager. But any member of staff should be able to take your complaint or pass you to the person who deals with them.
Some services might have an online form you can use on their website.
Make sure you clearly say you’re making a complaint. If you don’t use the word ‘complaint’ the service might not treat it as one and follow their complaints procedure.
You can explain:
- what’s happened,
- why you aren’t happy, and
- what you’d like to happen next.
Explain these things clearly, but in as few words as possible.
If you complain by phone or face-to-face the staff member you speak to should make a written record and give you a copy. We suggest you make a note of:
- the first and last name of who you spoke to,
- what you talked about and what was agreed, and
- the date and time of the conversation.
If you complain in writing, you can download this factsheet by using the link at the top of the page. At the end of the factsheet there are sample wordings you can use.
If you complain in writing, make sure that you keep a copy for your records. If you complain by letter, you can send it by recorded delivery so that you can prove that you sent it.
You can find more information about complaining about the NHS or social services on Healthwatch’s website: www.healthwatch.co.uk/help-making-complaint. See further down this page for more information about who Healthwatch are and what they do.
Is there a time limit to complain?
You usually must make your complaint to the NHS or social services within 12 months. The 12 months will begin:
- from the date your problem started, or
- when you found out about the problem.
The sooner you make the complaint the easier it will be for the service to investigate it. But if you can't do this, you can sometimes complain after 12 months have passed.
The NHS or social services might accept a late complaint if:
- it is still possible to investigate your complaint fairly, and
- you have good reasons for it being late.
The complaints manager will decide if they will accept a late complaint. Being very unwell could be a good reason for it being late.
Who do I complain to about the NHS?
You can complain to:
- the service you had problems with, or
- your local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) or NHS England.
Whether you complain to your local CCG or NHS England depends on the service you want to complain about. See below for more information.
You can’t usually complain to both the service and the CCG or NHS England about the same issue.
If the service you complain to don’t deal with it in a reasonable time you can complain to the CCG or NHS England.
You can read more about complaining to the NHS here:
What is your local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and NHS England?
Your local CCG and NHS England commission certain NHS services.
Your local CCG will commission services such as the following.
- NHS mental health teams and most other community services
- NHS 111
- Hospitals and urgent care
- Rehabilitation services
- Learning disability and autism services
NHS England will commission services such as the following.
- Your GP
- Your local NHS talking therapy service – sometimes known as IAPT services
- Your dentist
- Your optician
- Healthcare for prisoners
- Healthcare for armed forces
- NHS ‘tier 4’ specialist services
Their contact information is in the Useful contacts section at the bottom of this page.
Ben is unhappy with his GP. He can complain to the GP surgery or to NHS England.
Tracy is unhappy with her psychiatrist, who works for her local NHS mental health team. She can complain to the team or to the local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG).
Can I complain about different NHS services at the same time?
You might want to complain about different teams, such as your GP and the ambulance service. You only need to make one complaint.
The organisation that receives your complaint should contact the other services involved.
How do I find details for my local Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG)?
Click the below website link to find your local CCG service.
If you don’t have the internet, you can ask the following people to find the information for you.
- A health professional
- Patient Advisory and Liaison Service (PALS)
- NHS 111
Who do I complain to about social care?
Your social care might be arranged by social services, or NHS mental health services.
If the NHS arranges social services for you, you can complain to the NHS or your local authority.
If your local authority arranges social services for you, you must complain to them.
How do I find out who my local authority is?
You can use the following link to find out who your local authority is: www.gov.uk/find-local-council
How do I complain about private social care providers?
You must complain to the provider if you arrange and fund your own social care through:
- your own money, or
- direct payments.
The provider should have their own complaints process which you will need to follow. You may be able to find this on their website.
You will be able to take your complaint to the ombudsman if it isn’t resolved to your satisfaction.
See our webpage on Social care - Direct payments for more information.
What help can I get?
Who can help me make my complaint?
If you need help to make a complaint you can.
- Ask a friend or relative to help you complain
- Ask a friend or relative to make the complaint on your behalf – see further down this page for more information
- Contact an NHS complaints advocacy service
- Contact a community advocacy service
- Get in touch with the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS)
- Contact your local Citizens Advice service
- Contact your Member of Parliament (MP)
What are NHS complaints advocacy services?
NHS complaints advocacy services are free to use and independent from the NHS. They can help you to make a complaint against the NHS.
They can still help you if you want to complain about a private hospital that has been funded by the NHS.
To find your local service you can:
- search on the internet using terms like ‘NHS complaints advocacy Leicestershire’, or
- contact your local Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS).
You might have to wait to get help from your local service. You can ask them about waiting times.
What is community advocacy?
There may be community advocacy services that can help you to make a complaint about your local authority. They are free to use and they don’t work for the NHS or social services. But they won’t exist in all areas of England.
To find your local service you can search on the internet using terms like ‘community advocacy Leicestershire.’
You might have to wait to get help from your local service. You can ask them about waiting times.
See our webpage on Advocacy for more information.
What is the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS)?
PALS is an NHS service. They can:
- help you to sort out your problems,
- explain the NHS complaints procedure to you, and
- tell you how to get help from an advocate.
You can search for your local service here:
What is the Citizens Advice service?
Citizens Advice is an independent organisation. They specialise in advice and information to assist people with a range of issues such as debt, welfare benefits and housing.
Your local Citizen’s Advice may be able to help you complain.
You can find your local office at www.citizensadvice.org.uk or call them on 0800 144 8848.
How can my Member of Parliament (MP) help?
You could ask your local MP for help with the issue you have complained about. Especially if you’ve followed the normal complaint routes and you’re still unhappy.
You can find out who your local MP is by going to the website: www.members.parliament.uk/members/commons
Or you can contact the Commons Enquiry service on 0800 112 4272 (freephone) or 020 7219 4272.
Once the complaint has been made
How should the service deal with my complaint?
The NHS or social services have 3 working days to let you know that they have received your complaint. They should do this by phone, face-to-face or in writing.
The service should:
- look into your complaint as quickly as possible. This is called an 'investigation,'
- keep you up to date during the investigation,
- let you know the result of your complaint in writing, and
- explain your right to take your complaint further to the ombudsman service.
The service should have a complaints policy that explains how they’ll deal with your complaint. You can look on their website or ask a member of staff for a copy.
How will the service investigate my complaint?
A complaints manager will deal with your complaint. If you have made a complaint about a certain person, that person shouldn’t deal with your complaint.
There is no set process for how professionals should investigate your complaint.
An NHS investigation might involve:
- visiting the service,
- looking at records,
- interviewing staff members, or
- getting specialist advice.
Social services will have a similar procedure for investigating complaints.
How long will I have to wait for a response?
There are no time limits. The law says that the service should investigate your complaint 'speedily and efficiently.’ The service might have its own targets which might be in their complaints policy.
If the investigation takes more than 6 months, the service must:
- write to you and tell you why it is taking a long time, and
- let you know the result of your investigation as soon as possible.
The Local Government Ombudsman think it is reasonable for social services to respond to complaints within 12 weeks.
What can I expect if I complain to the NHS?
The NHS say you can:
- expect to be treated fairly, politely and with respect,
- be reassured that your care and treatment won’t be affected as a result of making a complaint,
- be offered the opportunity to discuss the complaint with a complaint’s manager, and
- expect appropriate action to be taken following your complaint.
See the following link for more information: www.england.nhs.uk/contact-us/complaint
What if I’m not happy with the response?
You can take your complaint to an ombudsman service if you aren’t happy with the outcome. You must do this in writing.
Ombudsman services are independent of the NHS and social services.
The ombudsman service will investigate your complaint. They may make recommendations to the NHS or social services about what the outcome of your complaint should be.
Which ombudsman service will investigate my complaint about the NHS?
If your complaint is about the NHS, you should contact the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO). They are free to use.
You can still complain to the Ombudsman if you have complained about a private hospital that’s been funded by the NHS.
You can find information about how to complain to the PHSO here: www.ombudsman.org.uk/making-complaint or you can call them. Their contact details are:
Parliamentary & Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO)
Makes final decisions about complaints that haven’t been resolved by the NHS in England.
Telephone: 0345 015 4033.
Which ombudsman service will investigate my complaint about the local authority?
If your complaint is about social services, your complaint should go to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO). They are free to use.
You can find information about how to complain to the PHSO here: www.lgo.org.uk/make-a-complaint or you can call them. Their contact details are:
The Local Government Ombudsman (LGO)
The final stage for complaints about social services and other local authority services.
Telephone: 0300 061 0614
Email: you can fill in a complaint form on the website
Is there a time limit for sending my complaint to the ombudsman?
You must complain to the ombudsman within 12 months of the problem you’re complaining about. The ombudsman may investigate complaints after this time if they think it is reasonable to. ,
You can’t usually make a complaint to the ombudsman until the NHS or local authority has given you a final response to your complaint. But you might be able to go straight to the ombudsman if the service won’t investigate your complaint without good reason. For more information see the previous section under ‘How long will I have to wait for a response?’
What do Healthwatch do?
Healthwatch gather feedback from the public about the NHS and social services to help improve what they do. So, if you report your issue to your local Healthwatch, it might help to improve services.
You can find your local Healthwatch by clicking on this link: www.healthwatch.co.uk/your-local-healthwatch/list
Staff, courts & the Mental Health Act
How can I complain about staff behaviour?
- use the NHS and social services complaints procedures, or
- for serious complaints, report staff to a regulator.
If healthcare staff don't act appropriately, it may be professional misconduct. Examples of professional misconduct might be if a staff member:
- has put a patient at serious risk of harm due to bad practice,
- has a sexual or inappropriate relationship with someone who uses their service,
- has lied about something,
- breaks confidentiality without good reason, or
- deliberately puts false information on records.
If you’re unhappy about a staff member’s behaviour you can complain to a professional regulator.
Professional regulators try to make sure that health and social care professionals do their job properly and safely. There are different regulators for different health and social care professionals.
If the regulator thinks that the staff member has acted inappropriately, they can take action.
Who is the regulator for doctors?
The General Medical Council (GMC) can deal with complaints about the serious misconduct of doctors.
General Medical Council
The professional regulator for doctors.
Who is the regulator for nurses?
The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) can deal with complaints about the serious misconduct of nurses.
Nursing and Midwifery Council
The professional regulator for nurses and midwives.
Who is the regulator social workers?
Social Work England can deal with complaints about the serious misconduct of social workers in England.
Social Work England
The professional regulator for social workers.
Who is the regulator for psychologists, occupational therapists, art therapists and paramedics?
The Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) can deal with complaints about the serious misconduct of certain professionals such as:
- occupational therapists,
- art therapists, and
Health and Care Professions Council
Regulates certain care professionals.
How can I complain about how the NHS used the Mental Health Act?
The Care Quality Commission (CQC) regulate how the Mental Health Act is used. They can look at complaints from you if you are, or have been:
- detained in hospital,
- under a community treatment order (CTO), or
- under guardianship.
You should complain to the hospital before you complain to the CQC.
You can complain to the CQC if you feel that the Mental Health Act wasn’t used properly. For example, if:
- professionals didn’t follow the right procedure when they detained you in hospital,
- you weren’t given information about your rights,
- you weren’t offered leave when you should’ve been,
- you weren’t involved with decisions about your care,
- you were restrained when you shouldn’t have been,
- you were kept you away from other patients when you shouldn’t have been, or
- the hospital didn’t plan your discharge properly.
The CQC can’t deal with complaints:
- that happened over a year ago,
- that are already being investigated by the police or a solicitor, or
- about treatment you’re given under the Act that you don’t want.
You can read more here: www.cqc.org.uk/contact-us/how-complain/complain-about-use-mental-health-act
Care Quality Commission
Monitors, inspects and regulates health and social care services.
For more information see our webpages on the following:
Can I take legal action?
If you feel that the NHS and social services have treated you badly, you may decide to take legal action. Especially if:
- you want to claim compensation because of clinical negligence, or
- you want a judicial review because you think they haven’t acted within the law.
It’s best to get legal advice before you consider taking legal action.
A solicitor will help you to think about:
- your chances of winning the case,
- if you can deal with the problems without taking the service to court, and
- how much it will cost to take them to court.
You may have to pay for advice from a solicitor. But you may be able to get free advice from your local Law Centre or disability rights service.
What is clinical negligence?
You can only normally claim compensation because of clinical negligence. This is when is when healthcare professionals physically or mentally hurt you because of the standard of health care they gave you.
To claim compensation, you will need to take legal action.
See our webpage on Clinical negligence for more information.
What is a judicial review?
The NHS and social services must act within the law. If you feel they haven’t, you can ask for a judicial review. Then a judge will look at the situation and decide if they acted legally.
The NHS or social services may be acting unlawfully if they have made a decision or done something:
- without the legal power to do so,
- that was unreasonable
- without following the proper process,
- that was unfair, or
- in breach of the Human Rights Act.
For example, you could ask for judicial review if you think that social services have waited too long before helping you.
If the court finds that the NHS or social services have acted unlawfully, it may take action.
You need to act quickly if you want to ask for a judicial review. You should do it as soon as you can and no later than 3 months after the grounds to make the claim first arose.
Does it cost money to make a judicial review?
A judicial review can be very expensive. You may be able to get help with your court fees if you’re on a low income or claim benefits.
If you win your case, you may be able to claim back court costs. But if you lose your case you may have to pay the court costs of the NHS or social services.
It’s best to get legal advice before you consider asking for a judicial review.
See our webpage on Legal advice – How to get help from a solicitor for more information.
Carer's, friends and family
Can I complain if I am a carer, friend or relative?
You can help a loved one to complain if they want you to.
You could do the following things.
- Give them information about how the complaints process works.
- Explain to your loved one how the complaints process works.
- Help them to make their complaint.
- Find out who to send the complaint to.
- Help to monitor progress of the complaint.
Can I complain on my loved one’s behalf?
You can make a complaint on their behalf if:
- If they have asked you to make a complaint for them, or
- They don’t have the mental capacity to decide whether to make a complaint.
If your loved one wants you to complain for you it’s best to get them to confirm it in writing.
See our webpage on Mental capacity and mental illness for more information.
Can I complain about something that has affected me?
If a something affects you as a carer, you can make your own complaint. For example, you might live with the person you care for. If they don’t get the right treatment, it may mean that you have to give them more support.
You could make a complaint if social services have refused to do a carer's assessment for you or there’s an issue with it. For more information see our webpages on the following:
NHS England commission services such as your GP, and healthcare for prisoners. You can contact them if you want to make a complaint about these services. Or you can complain direct to the service itself.
Civil Legal Advice
You might be able to get free and confidential advice from Civil Legal Advice as part of legal aid if you live in England or Wales.
Telephone: 0345 345 4 345
Minicom: 0345 609 6677
Text: you can text ‘legalaid’ and your name to 80010 to ask CLA to call you back. It costs the same as a normal text message.
Search for a legal adviser: www.find-legal-advice.justice.gov.uk/
Disability Law Service
They give free legal advice on community care, employment, housing and welfare benefits to people with disabilities and their carers.