Complain about a local council's involvement with your family

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

If you’re not happy with the way your local council has dealt with you, your child or a child you’re responsible for, you can complain.

If your complaint is about a child protection order and there is an ongoing court case, you should get legal advice first. Complaining won’t change a child protection order and it might make the situation worse. 

Find a solicitor who has 'Children Law Accreditation' - this means they're specialists in legal issues to do with children. You can find a solicitor with Children Law Accreditation on the Law Society website.

You can get legal aid to help pay for a solicitor - find out more about legal aid for family matters on the Child Law Advice website.

Before making a complaint, you’ll need to:

  • check what you can complain about

  • check whether you’re someone who’s allowed to make a complaint under a particular procedure

  • decide what outcome you want

  • check if there’s any time limits

  • get access to local council records

Check what you can complain about

Here are some examples of things you might want to complain about:

  • an unfair decision about a member of your family

  • a delay in making a decision

  • a delay in providing necessary services, including delays in assessing  someone’s needs

  • how the local council delivers services to your family. For example, the local council might have failed to provide a service that meets your cultural or language needs

  • the attitude or behaviour of an individual social worker

  • unfair treatment by a social worker, for example because of your sexual orientation or disability. This might amount to discrimination which is against the law

  • the way a child protection conference was run

  • the facts the local council based a decision on were wrong

Who can complain

The following people can use an official complaints procedure to complain about the local council:

  • a child - if they have enough understanding

  • the parent of a child, or anyone with parental responsibility

  • anyone else who the local council thinks has sufficient interest in the welfare of a child

Think about the outcome you want

Before making a complaint, you need to be clear about what outcome you want.

You might want to highlight what you see as bad practice so other people don’t have the same experience you had. In some cases, you’ll just want an explanation of what happened and perhaps an apology.

In some cases, you might want a social worker to be disciplined because of what they’ve done. Making a complaint won’t necessarily mean the social worker will be disciplined, even if the complaint is found in your favour. This is because the complaints procedures and disciplinary procedures are separate procedures. In some cases, disciplinary procedures might follow as a result of a complaint, but they won’t normally start until the complaints process has ended. 

You can’t get compensation as a result of using the official complaints procedure. However, if the complaint then goes to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, you could end up getting compensation. Another option to get compensation would be to sue the local council responsible for your complaint.  You should get legal advice if you’re thinking about suing your local council. You can check if you can get free or affordable legal help.

If your complaint is about a child protection case 

It can be complicated to decide how best to make a complaint about the local council. If the local council has serious concerns about the abuse of a child, and they have evidence of this, complaining about their behaviour might not help your case if you’re denying that your child needs protection. You should get legal advice before complaining about a child protection case.

Find a solicitor who has 'Children Law Accreditation' - this means they're specialists in legal issues to do with children. You can find a solicitor with Children Law Accreditation on the Law Society website.

You can get legal aid to help pay for a solicitor - find out more about legal aid for family matters on the Child Law Advice website.

Check when to complain 

If you want to make an official complaint, you should do this as soon as possible after the incident you want to complain about. The legal time limit for an official complaint to the local council is 12 months from the date of the incident, or 12 months from the date when you first became aware you had a reason to complain.

The time limit can be extended if it would be unreasonable to expect the complaint to have been made in time, for example, because of grief or trauma. It must, however, still be possible to investigate the complaint effectively and fairly. If you want to make a complaint outside the time limit, you must give full details of why you couldn’t make the complaint within the time limit.

Getting hold of records about you and your family 

Before you make your complaint, it might be useful for you first to get hold of the records that the local council and other professionals hold about you and your family. 

If the records are about someone else in your family, they’ll need to agree to their records being released. If the records are about a child, the child will need to agree if they understand enough. Requests for access to records will be reviewed by the local council Access to Records Officer.

They might refuse to give you access to records if it's likely to cause serious harm to you or someone else, for example, a child in protection. They should give you the reasons for refusal.

If you don’t agree with the reasons for refusal, you can include this in your complaint to the local council. You can also complain to them if you’re not happy with the way they handled your request, for example if it was delayed.

If the local council doesn't resolve your complaint about your records you can either:

How to complain

Your local council must have their own procedure in place to deal with complaints. They should have a copy of their complaints procedure on their website. Or you can ask them for a copy. 

The complaints procedure will tell you how to complain. It’s best to put your complaint in writing so you can keep a copy of what you said.

You can find out how to contact your local council on GOV.UK.

What to put in your letter

You should write clearly at the top of your letter that it is a complaint. 

Keep your letter short and to the point.

Try to work together with social workers in cases where they are concerned about harm to a child.  

State that you also want the best for your child. Explain why you feel that what has happened is not in the best interests of the child.

List clearly the issues you are complaining about, in date order, with as many factual details as you can. For example, if you are complaining about the behaviour of a social worker in a meeting, write down:

  • the date and place of the meeting

  • the name of the social worker

  • the names of anyone else at the meeting

Provide evidence of the problem - keep letters you get from the social workers, and make notes of anything that happens in a meeting with them. You can attach copies of relevant documents to your letter.  

Write the complaint in an unemotional way. Don’t make personal attacks on the staff you are complaining about – stick to complaining about the aspects of their behaviour that are unacceptable.

State the outcome you’re hoping for. This could be simply an apology and an undertaking to behave differently in the future.

If the complaint is about careless paperwork, ask for confirmation that the mistakes will be corrected.

If you’re complaining about unreasonable delays in getting copies of reports about your child, ask for a firm date to get the report.

Get legal advice if you want a more formal outcome, such as a different decision about your child being taken into care. 

Find a solicitor who has 'Children Law Accreditation' - this means they're specialists in legal issues to do with children. You can find a solicitor with Children Law Accreditation on the Law Society website.

You can get legal aid to help pay for a solicitor - find out more about legal aid for family matters on the Child Law Advice website.

Date your letter and ask for a reply within the time scales set out by your local council.

You could also send a copy of the letter to other people involved in your case. For example, if you were unhappy about the behaviour of social workers at a child protection conference, you could send a copy of your letter to:

  • your local council’s Children's Services Complaints department

  • their manager

  • the chair of the conference

  • your local councillor

  • your local MP

If you’re complaining about professional misconduct, you could also send a copy of the letter to the regulatory body of social workers.

Keep a copy of your letter and any attachments you send. You should also keep copies of any responses the local council sends you. 

How the local council will investigate your complaint

Each local council has its own procedures. You can contact your local council’s children’s services complaints manager for advice about the procedure. Some Safeguarding Partners have their own procedures for making a complaint about a child protection conference. You can find out about their procedures by looking on their website.

If the local council calls a child protection conference, the social worker should automatically give you a copy of the correct procedure to make a complaint. If they don’t, you can ask your social worker for a copy at any time. It’s important to see the procedure first because it can be different for each local council. 

Complaints are usually handled in 3 stages:

Stage 1

Your social worker, their manager or the complaints officer will review your complaint and reply in 10 days.

If you aren’t happy with their reply, you can go on to Stage 2.

Stage 2

If you’re still unhappy, your complaint will be sent to an investigating officer. They’ll review your complaint and write a report with their findings. This will be overseen by an independent person.

An adjudicating officer will make a decision about your complaint and tell you the outcome. They should do this within 25 days of you asking for the review. If it takes longer they should tell you why. They aren’t allowed to take more than 65 days to give you a decision.

If the problem isn’t sorted out at this stage, you have the right to ask for an independent review. You should do this within 20 days of getting the stage 2 review decision. 

Stage 3

An independent review is carried out by a panel made up of 3 people not involved in the case. The review must be done within 30 days of you asking for it.

The panel will consider:

  • your complaint

  • all the papers and reports - including minutes of meetings

  • the response to your Stage 2 complaint

You can go to the meeting to put your views in person and take someone to support you if that’s helpful. Solicitors can attend with the parents as a supporter, but there’s no right to be legally represented at the hearing by the panel. If a solicitor does attend, it’s just to take notes – they can’t speak on your behalf.

The panel will decide whether:

  • all the correct procedures have been followed

  • the decisions previously made to protect your child were reasonable

Once the panel have made their decision they’ll send a report to you and the local council within 5 days. The report will say what they think should happen. The local council must tell you what they’ll do within 15 days of getting the report. 

The local council doesn't have to do what the independent review panel says. If they don’t, they must tell you why. If you don’t agree you could take your complaint further.  

If the local council doesn’t resolve your complaint

If you aren’t satisfied with the way your complaint has been dealt with under the official procedure, you could take your complaint further.

Complaining to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman can investigate complaints about a local council’s maladministration. Maladministration could be, for example:

  • unreasonable delay

  • unfairness

  • failure to follow proper procedures

You should complain to the Ombudsman within 12 months of when the maladministration happened. The procedure is easy to follow and the Ombudsman can award compensation. However, it can take a long time for them to make a decision. 

You can find out how to complain to the ombudsman on the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman website.

Reporting concerns to the Care Quality Commission

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) regulates children’s social care as well as hospitals and adult social care.

Although they don’t deal with individual complaints, you can report your experience of your local council to them. This could result in action being taken against the local council. You can give feedback about care on the Care Quality Commission website.

You might have the right to go to court to ask for a decision to be reviewed if you believe you’ve been affected by an unlawful act or decision of a local council. This is called a judicial review. This might be appropriate, for example, if you urgently need to challenge a decision. You’ll need specialist legal advice about judicial review.

You might also be able to sue a local council if, for example, they didn’t protect you properly against personal injury or negligence when you were in care as a child.

In some cases, you might  have a claim for a breach of your human rights under the Human Rights Act 1998 - for example, the right to respect for private and family life. You’ll need specialist legal advice about this.

If you want to take legal action, get specialist legal advice. Depending on the sort of case, you might get legal aid. You can check if you can get free or affordable legal help.

Professional misconduct

Social Work England (SWE) is responsible for regulating social workers in England. Anyone can make a complaint to the SWE about a social worker’s conduct but it has to be in writing and can’t be made anonymously.

Examples of professional misconduct include:

  • inappropriate relationships with a client

  • exploiting a vulnerable client

  • false claims of social work qualifications

  • breach of confidentiality

  • falsifying records

You can raise a concern about a social worker on the Social Work England website.

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