Making a complaint about social work or social care services

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

Who can complain

Anyone who receives, asks for, or is affected by a social work service, can make a complaint. For example, if you live near a residential home run by the local council, and the way it provides its services is disruptive to you, you can make a complaint.

You can make a complaint if you're worried about someone because you don't think they are getting the help they need. You can make the complaint anonymously. If you make an anonymous complaint, it might only be investigated by the local council if you have provided enough information to allow it to identify the person and the problem.

Right to make a complaint and confidentiality

You might be worried about making a complaint if the local council is involved with your family for legal reasons, for example because someone has been at risk. You can make a complaint and you can ask for it to be kept confidential.

If you think your complaint will be handled by someone who has important decisions to make about your family and you think they will judge your complaint unfairly you can contact the complaints officer instead. You can get more advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau.

Complaining on behalf of someone else and advocacy

You might want to complain about a service that is being provided to a relative or friend who can't complain themselves. You can still complain but you should get their consent to do so. If they can’t provide consent, because they can't make decisions for themselves, the complaint might still be able to be dealt with. A local council can investigate the complaint but it might not be able to share the outcome because consent wasn’t provided in the first place. This ensures, however, that someone who might be in some kind of danger can still have the circumstances in the complaint investigated.

Your friend or relative might be able to make their complaint with the help of a trained advocate. There are advocates all over Scotland. You can check if there's a local advocate on the Scottish Independent Advocacy Alliance website.

You might find it helpful to get some advice about powers of attorney if your relative or friend's ability to take action themselves is deteriorating. You can get more advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau. Read more about managing affairs for someone else.

As a child or young person under 18 you can use the complaints process if you or your family is receiving services. If you're in the care of the local council, you should be given extra help to make sure your complaint is understood. It might be helpful to have an advocate to give you some support. You can check if there's a local advocate on the Scottish Independent Advocacy Alliance website.

Who to complain to and how to complain

Most local councils and agencies they pay to provide services have to publish and provide you with information about how to complain. Most local councils have a complaints department or customer services department. The contact details should be clear on the council's website. You can find your local council on the Care Information Scotland website.

The information provided about complaints should be available in several languages and in Braille or on tape.

In some cases, who to complain to might depend on what you're complaining about. This can be quite complicated to work out if services are provided by staff from several agencies that work together. These are called integrated services.

If your complaint is straightforward - for example, a social worker was meant to meet you and didn’t keep the appointment - most staff in the social work department can take a note of this complaint for you. You can make your complaint in person, by phone, letter, email or by using a standard form on the local council website.

You might be able to make your complaint using a standard form on the website of the social care provider. Every social care provider has to be registered with the Care Inspectorate and as a registered service it must have a complaints process.

If you're unclear about who to complain to, you can get more help from your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

If you don’t have access to a computer to use an online form you can write to the service provider. You should provide the following details:

  • your full name and address

  • as much as you can about the complaint

  • what has gone wrong

  • how you want the provider to resolve the matter.

You can find out how to complain about public services which includes social work services on the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman website.

What can the complaint be about

You can make a complaint about all aspects of a social work service, including:

  • failure or refusal to provide a service

  • inadequate quality or standard of service

  • unhappiness at how the service is provided because of how it affects you

  • services and actions not matching what the local council website says it will do

  • incompetence in communicating with you, for example not calling back or writing when staff said they would

  • delays in providing something

  • how a member of staff talks to you or treats you.

You cannot use the complaints procedure to:

  • claim compensation

  • complain if you’re taking legal action about the issue. If you’re using the complaints procedure and then start legal action about the same issue, you should tell the complaints handler and the complaints procedure will end

  • complain about an issue that’s already being discussed at another legal body, for example the Mental Health Tribunal or the Children's Panel.

How is the complaint handled

Model complaints handling procedure

The SPSO has provided a model complaints handling procedure for local councils which includes all social work service providers. 

Time limit: You have 6 months to take a complaint to the local council. The 6 months start to run from the point you became aware of the problem. In some cases, this might be the date on which a decision was taken or you were informed about it. In other cases, it might be the date that something started or stopped because of a decision taken earlier.

You can find the model complaints handling procedure for local councils and other organisations on the SPSO website.

Here is a summary of the procedure:

Stage 1: Frontline resolution

Most staff can record a complaint that can be handled at the first stage. It might not be the person you speak to first who tries to deal with the problem. The main focus will be to try to resolve the complaint to your satisfaction. You should receive a communication about your complaint within 5 working days. If you're happy with the outcome, the complaint is closed.

If you're not happy, or it is obvious that it is a complicated complaint, it can move to the next stage. For example, if a member of social work staff failed to keep an appointment, you might be happy if you get an apology and an offer of another appointment. However, if the social worker has missed appointments several times and doesn’t have a good explanation, you might want to take your complaint on to the next stage.

Stage 2: Investigation

When a complaint moves to the second stage, you should receive communication within 3 working days to let you know that the complaint has been recorded. Staff will then investigate the situation and have to get back to you within 20 working days. If the situation is very complex or key staff are temporarily unavailable, you might be asked to accept that it will take longer than 20 days for the organisation to decide what to do.

If you're happy with the decision reached, the complaint is closed. If you're not happy, you can take your complaint on to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).

Scottish Public Services Ombudsman

When a complaint about a social work service reaches the SPSO, it can look into:

  • service failure

  • maladministration

  • complaint handling by the social care organisation

  • professional judgement.

Independent professional advisers can assess what decisions were taken and what professional judgements were made. These specialists can decide whether or not the professional judgement made by staff was reasonable in the circumstances of the case.

Time limit: You have to submit your complaint to the SPSO within 12 months of you becoming aware of the issue you want to complain about.

Care Inspectorate

The Care Inspectorate inspects and reports on all care services registered with it. This means all care services, including all types of day care for children and adults, visiting support services and residential care for children and adults. It checks that the services all meet a set of national standards.

If you want to complain about a care service registered with the Care Inspectorate, you can complain directly to it. The Care Inspectorate is likely to encourage you to make your complaint to the service provider instead, as there might be a better chance of solving your complaint at the local level. For example, if you wanted to complain about the catering in a care home, it might be easier for the manager of the home to investigate what is happening in its kitchen first.

However, if you're worried about making a direct approach to the organisation that provided the services, you can ask the Care Inspectorate to investigate the complaint, and it will let you know the outcome.

You can check information about making a complaint on the Care Inspectorate website

The Care Inspectorate headquarters can be contacted at:

The Care Inspectorate

Compass House

11 Riverside Drive



Tel: 0345 600 9527 (Monday to Friday 9am to 4pm)



Scottish Social Services Council

Complaints about staff

The Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) has a register of social service staff who work with the public. The following groups of care workers don’t have to register with the SSSC, but if they're employed, the agencies they work in have to register with the local council and the Care Inspectorate:

  • child minders

  • social work assistants, mostly local council workers

  • adult day care workers, except managers.

When social service workers are registered, the SSSC can deal with any concerns about the fitness to practise of workers reported to it. A complaint about a member of staff can be made directly to the SSSC. The SSSC usually will only investigate a complaint about a member of staff when you're concerned about their ability to do the job safely and effectively. You can find out how to complain and what the SSSC can investigate on its website

The SSSC might want you to make your complaint to the local service that employs the worker, but you don’t have to. If you can make your complaint directly to the worker's employer, it might be resolved more quickly. For example, your social worker might have decided that you no longer need their help but you don’t agree. The staff member who manages the social worker in the local office is the person best placed to look into your complaint first.

If a complaint has been made to the Scottish Social Services Council about your conduct

If a complaint has been made to the Scottish Social Services Council (SSSC) about your conduct, it will be investigated. You might be called to a Fitness to Practise investigation hearing.

You can read about the Fitness to Practise process on the SSSC website. You might also get help and advice from a trade union, if you're a member of one, or a solicitor. 

The public might be allowed to go to the hearing, but the chair of the hearing can decide to make it a private hearing. It's likely that witnesses will be called to provide evidence.

If your employer is holding a disciplinary meeting about your conduct, you can prepare before the meeting. Read more about preparing for a disciplinary or dismissal meeting.

Complaints about integrated services

Some health, social care and social work services in Scotland are provided by the local NHS board and local councils working together, in health and social care partnerships (HSCP). There are 31 partnerships in Scotland. Most partnership areas have chosen a partnership model of members from both the NHS and the local council sitting on an Integrated Joint Board (IJB). Highland region has a different model. If you live in Highland, you should contact the local council. If you live anywhere else, you should contact the primary service provider first, which will be either the NHS or the local council. Either should take the lead in handling your complaint.

You might have a complaint about social care, such as a care home or a community care worker, or a social work service as well as an NHS service.

The IJBs are responsible for ensuring that particular services are provided to the public by the NHS and local council working together - known as 'integrated services'. You might need to give consent for a complaint to be shared with another integrated service, but it should be made clear to you who is investigating your complaint.

You should only receive 1 response about the complaint, but you could receive 2 responses dealing with different aspects of the complaint and this should be clearly explained. 

Complaints about services provided by care homes and care services

All registered care services must have a complaints procedure. They should clearly state what their complaints procedure is in their service users' guides or brochures. The way you make your complaint will depend on what it's about.

If you want to complain about the way a care home is being run and how you've been treated you should complain to the care home first, but you can also complain to the Care Inspectorate.

If you want to complain about decisions made by the local council about what financial help you're entitled to, for example to pay your care home fees, you should use the model complaints procedure.

If you have a serious complaint about any of your money going missing from the care home or abusive care of any kind, you should get advice from a Citizens Advice Bureau. You should also contact the local council social work services to ask for the matter to be investigated.

Problems with some complaints

You might be considering taking legal action about the issue you could complain about. You probably need to get some advice before you start legal action. It's very unlikely that if you make your complaint you will receive any financial compensation from using the complaints process. Taking legal action could be costly but it will depend on your circumstances.

You can find out:

Complaints about social work reports for official bodies

Most social workers have to write official reports for legal bodies, such as the Children's Panel or the Mental Welfare Tribunal. If such a report is going to be presented at a meeting of the legal body and you’re unhappy with the report, you cannot use the complaints procedure. You can complain about the report at the meeting of the legal body.

Closure of social care services

Sometimes decisions are taken to close services. You can complain about this to the care provider or the local council if it's a local council service. You can use the model complaints process to start your complaint. You should explain how the closure of the service affects you.

Complaints when you're under statutory powers of the local council 

You might be receiving services from a social work or social care organisation because you have to. You might feel it's difficult to make a complaint because you're worried you will lose the services that you need or the people providing them might provide an even worse service if you complain.

The model complaints procedure should give you an opportunity to make a confidential complaint. You have the right to complain if you're unhappy with a service. If your complaint is a serious one about someone’s behaviour towards you, it could go straight to an investigation by a senior member of staff or the Scottish Social Services Council.