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Complaints and legal action against the police

This advice applies to Scotland

What action to take

What action to take depends on what happened and how you want the issue to be resolved.

  • if you are unhappy about any aspect of police service, you can make a complaint. You won't get financial compensation
  • if you think a police officer has broken the law, on duty or off duty, you can make a complaint. This can result in the officer being disciplined or, in rare cases, prosecuted. You could also contact the Procurator Fiscal directly to ask for a criminal investigation. You won't get financial compensation
  • if you have already complained to the police but you aren't happy with how it was investigated or resolved, you can refer the issue to the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) within three months
  • if you have been caused distress or injury by police officers you could make a complaint as well as claim compensation or sue for damages
  • if you want to complain about a senior police officer such as a Deputy Chief Constable, an Assistant Chief Constable or the Chief Constable, you should contact the Scottish Police Authority (SPA)
  • if you feel you have been discriminated against or your human rights have not been respected, you can explore legal action against the police
  • if you want access to information that the police hold about you, you can request a copy of this.

Complaints against the police 

What you can complain about

If you are unhappy with any aspect of police behaviour, or think that the police have acted outwith their powers or haven’t followed correct procedures, then you can make an official complaint.

There are two main types of complaint you can make:

  • a complaint against a police officer, a police staff member, cadet or special constable
  • a complaint about the quality of service, policies and procedures of the police. For example, if you think the police aren’t doing enough to tackle a particular crime problem in your area. You can also speak to your local MSP or MP about this.

Examples of grounds for complaint are that a police officer has:

  • been disorderly in her/his conduct
  • been rude towards any member of the public
  • failed to attend promptly and diligently to anything which is her/his duty
  • made false, misleading or inaccurate statements (either written or oral)
  • used or attempted to use the office of constable for private advantage
  • suppressed or falsified a complaint from any source against a constable
  • caused or made an unlawful or unnecessary arrest
  • used unnecessary force to any prisoner or other person
  • caused loss of or damage to any property within police care.

For example, you could complain if you were stopped and searched but you don’t think the police officer followed the search procedure. More about stop and search.

You can complain about a police officer whether they are on duty or off duty.

You can’t complain about actions or events which are really outwith police control. For example, the police aren't expected to get involved (unless a criminal offence has happened) in:

  • most neighbour disputes (unless one person has assaulted another)
  • most environmental nuisances (such as ice-cream van chimes) which should be dealt with by the environmental health department of the council.

Evidence to support your complaint

Before you make a complaint, think about:

  • whether you have any evidence to support your complaint
  • whether you have any witnesses who will confirm what happened.

Having evidence increases the likelihood that your complaint will be upheld. If you are complaining about a search, your complaint should include a record of the search. More about stop and search. You should ask witnesses to write down what they witnessed, and sign and date this, so you can include it with your complaint. If possible take the names and addresses of the witnesses.

Police complaints are seen as a very serious matter. You can be charged with wasting police time if a complaint is investigated and found to be deliberately false and malicious. There is also a possibility, in such circumstances, that the police officer complained about will start a civil action for defamation of character. Having evidence and/or reliable witnesses to support your complaint can help. 

Who can complain

If you have been directly affected by police action or inaction, you can make a complaint. Children and young people under 18, and vulnerable adults, can complain on their own behalf. 

If you don’t feel able to complain yourself, you could have someone complain on your behalf, with your consent. For example, a solicitor, an MSP, friend, responsible adult or parent. An adviser at your local citizens advice bureau may also complain on your behalf - where to get advice.  

You can also complain if you were indirectly affected by police action or inaction, or witnessed it. 

There is nothing to stop you complaining about the police if there are criminal proceedings against you. For example, police may be alleging that you committed a breach of the peace as a result of the same incident which is the basis of your complaint. It may be easier for someone else to make the complaint on your behalf. You could also send copies of your complaint to the Procurator Fiscal or local MSP/MP.

Making a complaint

You should complain directly to Police Scotland, Scotland’s national police service.

You can write, phone, email or use the online complaints form. You can also complain in person at any police station or to any police officer. It may be best to complain in writing so that you have a record of the complaint. An adviser at your local citizens advice bureau can help you to write a full account of your complaint.

Police Scotland Headquarters
PO Box 21184
Alloa
FK10 9DE

Tel: 101 (non-emergencies and general enquiries) or 01786 289 070

There is information on what to include in a complaint and a link to the online complaints form on the Police Scotland website at www.scotland.police.uk.

In the complaint you should include:

  • a description of what happened
  • what the problem is
  • what you want to happen
  • your address and contact details, if you don't want to complain anonymously.

You should be aware that this complaints procedure cannot provide you with financial compensation. You could ask for an apology or for an officer to be retrained or disciplined.

If you want to make a complaint about something very serious, like discrimination, you could get advice from a solicitor. You could also get advice from an experienced adviser, for example, at a Citizens Advice Bureau - where to get advice.

What will happen with your complaint

When the police get a complaint they investigate it.

A complaint may go through a series of stages:

  • informal resolution
  • formal investigation
  • investigation by the Procurator Fiscal.

There is more information about how complaints are dealt with in the leaflet 'A guide for complaints about the police', available at www.scotland.police.uk.

You may be asked to meet with an investigating officer. You can have a friend or representative, (but not a lawyer) at the meeting. A bureau adviser may be able to accompany you for support and to provide an independent ear. Anything you say to the officer is confidential. 

As a result of your complaint the police may decide:

  • that no further action is needed and the explanation given to you is enough, or
  • to review a policy, process or procedure and make changes to ensure that the same thing doesn't happen again, or
  • to offer you an apology, or
  • that officers involved require training, counselling or advice to improve their performance. In some cases, this could involve the force's internal disciplinary procedures.

You should be advised of the outcome of the investigation as soon as possible. You may only be told about the outcome in a general way as the investigation is confidential. These confidential documents cannot be used in any subsequent legal actions for damages against the police. 

If you aren't happy with the way your complaint was investigated you can refer your complaint to the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner

Withdrawing your complaint

If you want to withdraw a complaint, you should write to the Chief Constable to say so, unless:

Taking your complaint to the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (PIRC)

If you are unhappy with the way that the police force have dealt with a complaint you have made, you can ask the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner to review it. This is free and independent. You should do this within three months of the date you received the outcome of your original complaint. There is a guide for the public on the role of the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner available on the PIRC website at pirc.scotland.gov.uk .

The Police Investigations & Review Commissioner does not investigate the actual substance of a complaint. The Commissioner's role is to review the way that the complaint was handled by the police. After investigating the complaint, the Commissioner can tell a police body to reconsider the complaint.

There is more information on how to request a review on the PIRC website at pirc.scotland.gov.uk. The contact details for PIRC are:

Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (PIRC)
Hamilton House
Hamilton Business Park
Caird Park
Hamilton
ML3 0QA

Tel: 0808 178 5577 or 01698 542900
Email: enquiries@pirc.gsi.gov.uk
Website: www.pirc.scotland.gov.uk

If the client wants to complain about how the PIRC has handled the review, such as unreasonable delays, the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (PIRC) has an internal complaints process. There is information, including a leaflet that can be downloaded, on the PIRC website at www.pirc.scotland.gov.uk. If this does not resolve the issue, you can take the complaint to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).

More about the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman.

Complaining as a group about policing in your area

If you want to complain about policing in your area, you may find that it is possible to form a group and campaign for changes. For example, you may want the police to do something about vandalism in your neighbourhood.

The police have special officers whose job it is to work with community groups and representatives to try to prevent any particular problems arising in an area, known as community involvement officers. You can contact the local police station and arrange to meet with this officer, to state their concerns and see what can be done.

You can find your local police station on the Police Scotland website at www.scotland.police.uk.

You should try to collect evidence of the problem to give to the community involvement officer. This is best done by writing up a register of incidents and events, and witnesses.

You could also write to:

  • your local councillor. S/he can raise the matter informally with the police or through the police authority. Find your local councillor on the GOV.UK website at www.gov.uk.
  • your constituency MSP. The MSP may be prepared to raise matters informally with the police. S/he may even be prepared to ask a question in the Scottish Parliament. You can find your local MSP using the Scottish Parliament website at www.parliament.scot.
  • the local Procurator Fiscal, who decides whether crimes will be prosecuted. You should only write to the Procurator Fiscal if you believe that a police officer or a another member of police staff has committed a crime.

One of the local representatives may be prepared to arrange a meeting with local community representatives and police, to discuss the problem.

Complaining about senior officers

If you want to complain about a senior police officer such as a Deputy Chief Constable, an Assistant Chief Constable or the Chief Constable, you should contact the Scottish Police Authority (SPA).

Scottish Police Authority (SPA)

Elphinstone House
65 West Regent Street
Glasgow
G2 2AF

Tel: 0141 534 8903, 0141 534 8877 or 0141 534 8873
Website: www.spa.police.uk

In some circumstances you may want to take legal action against the police. For example:

  • sue the police for damages. You will need to use a solicitor to do this
  • claim compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority
  • contact the Procurator Fiscal if you think a police officer has broken the law.

A breach of the stop and search code of practice, such as the use of a consensual search by a police officer, cannot be the basis of a legal claim, unless you feel your rights were breached in some other way, such as discrimination  (s75, Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2016).

If the police have discriminated against you on racial or religious grounds, for example, by not investigating a complaint properly, you may be able to take action about discrimination because of race or religion under the Equality Act 2010.

See Discrimination because of religion or belief.

Reporting a crime to the procurator fiscal

If you believe that a police officer has broken the law, whether on duty or off duty, you can complain directly to a local Procurator Fiscal office. These can be found using the search on the home page of the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) website at www.copfs.gov.uk.

The Procurator Fiscal is independent of the police, and is responsible for deciding whether criminal proceedings should be taken against someone.

The Fiscal will carry out an investigation. The Fiscal will contact the client who made the complaint, and may ask her/him to go to the Fiscal's office to be interviewed. In some cases, the Fiscal may direct the police and/or the Police Investigations & Review Commissioner (PIRC) to investigate a complaint on her/his behalf, before carrying out her/his own investigation.

After considering the evidence, the Fiscal may decide:

  • that no criminal proceedings should be taken. You will be told in writing, and the Fiscal will refer the case back to the police, to decide whether misconduct      proceedings should be taken, or
  • to report the case to the Crown Office (the headquarters of the Fiscal service) which decides whether to prosecute the member of the police force concerned. The Fiscal's office will tell you what the Crown Office decides. If there is a prosecution, you (and any other witnesses) may have to attend court to give evidence. More about attending court.

If you are not happy about the way the complaint was dealt with by the Procurator Fiscal, or are not happy with the Procurator Fiscal's decision, you can write directly to the Area Procurator Fiscal or to the Lord Advocate. The Lord Advocate can be contacted at:

Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service
25 Chambers Street
Edinburgh
EH1 1LA

Tel: 0131 226 2626
Fax: 0844 561 4069
Email: PS/COPFS@scotland.gsi.gov.uk
Website: www.copfs.gov.uk

Claiming compensation

You may wish to try to get compensation for any distress or injury caused by police officers. The police complaints procedure is not intended to provide compensation for the complainant, but you may be able to:

  • sue the police for damages, and/or
  • claim compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA).

You do not need to have your complaint against the police upheld before trying either of these remedies. However, it will strengthen the case if a complaint has been investigated and upheld.

If you have a choice about claiming from the CICA, and suing in court for damages you should do both. However if you receive civil court damages, you will have to repay to the CICA the amount of any award you received.

Criminal injuries compensation scheme

Any person who is the victim of a crime of violence can apply for compensation from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA). If you sustained serious injuries as a result of an alleged assault by the police, you can apply for compensation. The client can do this even if her/his complaint against the police has not been upheld. The client must be able to give evidence about injuries s/he has sustained. Claiming from the CICA is simpler than suing the police for damages because the client will not have to go to court. However, court orders for damages can be more generous, and cover both personal injuries and other losses (for example, damage to property, false imprisonment).

Suing for damages

It is possible to take civil action in the court against the police for damages or compensation as a result of any unlawful act, or omission, on the part of a police officer. However, it is rarely successful.

You should take very careful legal advice from a solicitor to establish whether the costs involved would be worthwhile, and whether or not there is any chance of success. Legal aid may be available, but you may have to pay a contribution towards the expenses of the case.

More about help with legal costs and using a solicitor

Discrimination

The police cannot discriminate against any person because of age, disability, gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex or sexual orientation. For example, if a police officer treats you less favourably because of your race, fails to treat a reported crime seriously because of your gender or sexual orientation, or where the conditions in police custody create unnecessary difficulties for you if you have a disability.

If you have been discriminated against you should complain to the police or police authority at www.scotland.police. You may want to get further advice from a solicitor. You could also get advice from an experienced adviser, for example, a Citizens Advice Bureau - where to get advice.

Human rights

The Human Rights Act 1998 prevents discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

The police are a public authority and must respect your human rights when they carry out their duties. If you want to challenge action by the police using human rights law, you should get specialist legal help.

More about human rights
More about human rights and taking legal action

Requesting to see information the police holds on you

If you want to see or be given a copy of personal information that the police holds on you, you can make a subject access request to the data controller of an organisation.

More information about requesting information, and a copy of the request form, is available on the Police Scotland website at www.scotland.police.uk. There may be a small fee.

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