Complaining to an ombudsman

This advice applies to England. See advice for See advice for Northern Ireland, See advice for Scotland, See advice for Wales

An ombudsman is a person who has been appointed to look into complaints about companies and organisations.

Ombudsman schemes are independent, free and impartial – so they don't take sides.

You should try and resolve your complaint with the organisation before you complain to an ombudsman.

The ombudsman might be able to deal with your complaint more quickly in some situations. Tell them if:

  • you’re in a vulnerable situation - for example if you’re sick or disabled

  • you’re taking legal action and you need the ombudsman’s decision before a court hearing

When to complain to an ombudsman

You can complain to an ombudsman if you’ve already complained to the organisation and couldn’t solve your problem through their complaints procedure.

An ombudsman will also investigate your complaint if the organisation takes too long to resolve your complaint - this is usually 8 weeks, but check with the scheme you’re using.

Some ombudsman schemes won’t investigate old complaints, so you’ll also need to check their cut off point.

An ombudsman will not investigate your case if you have already started court action.

How to complain to an ombudsman

Check the ombudsman's website to see how to make a complaint - most of them have an online form.

Tell the ombudsman if you need extra support making a complaint - for example help filling out forms or making the complaint in a language that isn’t English.

You might need to send copies of any paperwork related to your complaint, so it's a good idea to have it ready.

Find an ombudsman

There are two types of ombudsman. Some cover the private sector - they handle financial and consumer complaints. Some cover the public sector - they mainly look into complaints about government organisations and public services.

Most ombudsman schemes are members of the Ombudsman Association.

Private sector ombudsman schemes

You can complain to a private sector ombudsman if you have an unresolved complaint about a commercial business that is a member of the ombudsman scheme.

You might need a letter from the trader saying you couldn’t sort out the problem - this is called a ‘letter of deadlock’. You don’t need this letter if the organisation is taking too long to deal with your complaint - this is usually 8 weeks, but check with the ombudsman scheme you’re using.

Using an ombudsman is a way of trying to solve your problem without going to court. Read our guide to solving a consumer problem before you contact an ombudsman.

Private sector ombudsman schemes include:

Public sector ombudsman schemes

If you want to complain about a government department, local council or organisation that provides local services, you can use a public sector ombudsman. These include:

  • the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman investigates complaints about government departments and some other public bodies - they can also look into complaints about NHS hospitals or community health services

  • the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman investigates complaints about local councils, care homes and some other organisations providing local public services

  • the Housing Ombudsman can help if you're a tenant or leaseholder and you have a dispute with your landlord if they are a social landlord or a voluntary member of their scheme

  • the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman carries out independent investigations into deaths and complaints in custody

  • the European Ombudsman investigates complaints about the institutions and bodies of the European Union

What happens after you complain

The ombudsman will look at evidence from both sides and decide what should happen. An ombudsman’s investigation can take a long time, so you might have to wait a while for a decision.

If the ombudsman decides your complaint is justified, they'll recommend what the organisation should do to put things right.

A public sector ombudsman can't force an organisation to go along with their recommendations, but organisations almost always do.

A private sector ombudsman’s decision could be legally binding. They can make a decision that you wouldn’t necessarily get if you went to court. For example, the ombudsman can ask the trader to apologise or order the trader to compensate you if you’ve lost money.

If you’re not happy with the ombudsman’s decision, you might be able to take court action - but the court will take the ombudsman’s decision into account.

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Page last reviewed on 25 September 2019