Frequently asked questions

General information

  • What does NIPSO do?

    We provide a free, independent, and impartial service for handling complaints about public services in Northern Ireland.

    Our role is to make a decision on each case by taking into account all the available facts and evidence. We do this by carefully considering the views and opinions of both the person making the complaint and whoever is being complained about.

    Our aim is to help public services improve through our investigations and reports.

  • What can I complain about?

    We investigate public service complaints covering education, local authorities, central government, social housing, and health and social care. We consider unresolved complaints about maladministration, which is generally taken to mean poor administration or the wrong application of rules. Examples include:

    • Avoidable delay
    • Faulty procedures or failing to follow the correct procedures
    • Not telling you about any rights of appeal you have
    • Unfairness, bias or prejudice
    • Giving advice that is misleading or inadequate
    • Discourtesy and failure to apologise
    • Mistakes in handling your complaint
    • Refusing to answer reasonable questions
  • Is there anything you cannot investigate?

    We can only deal with complaints about public service providers.

    We would not generally accept your complaint if:

    • You make your complaint more than 6 months after completing the organisation’s complaints procedure
    • You could take your case to a tribunal
    • You could have gone to court or have already begun legal action
    • We believe that the action or decision you are complaining about was reasonable
    • It is about government policy
    • It is about private health care
    • If you are not sure whether we can deal with your particular complaint, please contact our ASSIST team on Freephone 0800 34 34 24.
  • Do I have to pay to make a complaint?

    No, our service is free of charge.

Making a complaint

  • How do I complain?

    You should first put your complaint to the public body concerned.

    If you remain dissatisfied after completing the body’s complaint procedure, then you can bring your complaint to us.

    You can submit a complaint form online or download the form from our website.

    Please contact us if you have difficulty in submitting your complaint to us in writing, or would like the complaint form in another language or format.

  • What information do you need from me?

    The best way to send in your complaint to us is by sending in a fully completed Complaints Form.  We ask for the following information:

    • Your name, address and other contact details
    • Whether you intend to, or have begun, legal action
    • Whether your complaint is on behalf of someone else
    • The name of the organisation you are complaining about
    • Whether you have complained to the organisation
    • If so, whether you have received a final response from them or completed their complaints procedure
    • When the event you are complaining about happened
    • Any copies of supporting paperwork received from the organisation in relation to your complaint
    • An outline of the background to your complaint and a brief description of what you think the organisation failed to do, or did wrongly.
    • How the actions of the organisation have affected you
    • The outcome or remedy you would like us to achieve for you.
  • Can someone complain on my behalf?

    Yes.  A family member, solicitor, advocacy body, or MLA may bring a complaint to us on your behalf.

    We may contact you to ensure you consent to someone else bringing the complaint on your behalf.

  • Is there a time limit for making a complaint?

    Once the public body has completed its complaints procedure, you must bring your complaint to us within 6 months.  In exceptional cases we may be able to accept complaints if they are brought to us after this.

Assessing your complaint

  • Will my complaint be investigated?

    We can decide whether or not to accept a complaint for investigation.

    An initial assessment of your complaint will be made to decide if we have the legal authority to investigate your complaint. We use the legislation to help us make this decision. If we cannot accept your complaint, we will inform you of our decision in writing within 2 weeks.

    If we have the legal authority to investigate your complaint, then we will make an assessment of your complaint to decide if it should be investigated. This assessment involves considering your complaint and the supporting evidence you have presented. We usually seek further information from the organisation you have complained about. We may also ask the organisation about any proposals it may have to settle the complaint, rather than us carrying out an investigation.

    When we have gathered sufficient information, we will assess your complaint and decide whether an investigation:

    • is appropriate and necessary
    • would bring about a solution or adequate remedy
    • could be of benefit to the general public

    We will write to you within 10 weeks to inform you of our decision.

  • Can you help resolve my complaint without it going for investigation?

    Yes, we can make a decision at the assessment stage to resolve a complaint without carrying out an investigation.  This is described as a ‘settlement’ and can provide a speedy, effective and practical resolution of the complaint.

    When considering the possibility of a settlement, staff will identify the action needed to resolve or remedy the cause of complaint.  This may take the form of an apology, an improvement in service, reimbursement of expenses or any other action considered appropriate.  We will contact you if we believe a settlement is the best way of resolving your complaint.

Investigating your complaint

  • What happens in an investigation?

    Where our ASSIST team decide that they cannot resolve your complaint and there is evidence that the matter requires investigation, the case is forwarded to the Ombudsman’s Investigations Team.

    This is a dedicated unit of investigators who bring a wide variety of experience to the role. Investigators conduct a detailed independent, impartial investigation of every case by obtaining all relevant evidence, either from the complainant, the public service provider or any other relevant party.

    The investigation is conducted through correspondence and/or interview with relevant witnesses and staff involved in the complaint. When investigating complaints about health and social care, investigators will also seek advice from a team of qualified Independent Professional Advisors.

    An Ombudsman investigation is an inquisitorial rather than an adversarial process.

  • Will I be interviewed?

    You may be interviewed by an Investigating Officer where we decide if we require further information from you in relation to your complaint.  Should we feel an interview is necessary, we will contact you to arrange a suitable time and date.

  • How long does an investigation take?

    We aim to complete our investigation and issue a draft report within 50 weeks of the decision being made to investigate.  Many are completed in much less time than this, but complex investigations may take longer.  These would be cases where we need to get professional advice, look at a lot of written material, interview a number of people or make detailed enquiries.  We will keep you updated on the progress of your investigation.

  • Do your investigators get specialist case advice?

    Yes, we use Independent Professional Advisors (IPAs) in some investigations.

  • Can I see your draft report?

    Yes. Once the investigation has finished we will write a draft report. This will be sent to you for your comment. A copy will also be sent to the organisation.

    You will also be asked at this stage whether you have any comment to make on the publication of an anonymised version of the report.

After the investigation

  • What happens if you uphold my complaint?

    Where we find that a public body has done something wrong we will make recommendations to help put things right. We often ask that the recommendations are carried out within a particular timescale, and follow up to make sure they are carried out.

    We also look to put the person affected back into a position where they would have been had there not been a negative impact on them. If this is not possible, for example where the injustice is distress or unnecessary pain, we may suggest a financial payment instead.

  • What percentage of the complaints you investigate are ‘upheld’.

    We uphold (or partially uphold) around two thirds of the complaints we investigate. Around one third are not upheld.

  • Do you issue a report?

    If your complaint is closed at the assessment stage you will receive a letter from us informing you of the outcome.  The body will also be informed of our decision.

    If your complaint goes for investigation a detailed report will be sent to you and the public body.  The report will set out:

    • the full details of the complaint
    • what standards, policies, procedures or legislation were referred to during the investigation
    • the response of the public body
    • details of any advice received from the Independent Professional Advisors
    • our findings and the reasons for them
    • any recommendations made to the organisation
  • Will your report be made public?

    We publish our reports where we believe is there is a public interest in doing so.

    We believe it is in the public interest for us to be open and transparent about the findings we reach. One way we can do this is to show how we carry out our investigations and explain how we arrive at our decisions.

    We also believe that reporting on cases helps to improve transparency, accountability and learning in public service providers. If bodies can be seen to be held account for their actions they are more likely to provide a better service to the public. Greater awareness of how they operate is also likely to increase public participation in decision-making and improve the overall level of trust and confidence in the public sector.

    Before deciding to publish any report we must give notice to interested parties, asking them for any comments on publication. We do this when we send out the draft report. The comments will be considered before a final decision is taken.

    If a report is published, as far as possible any personal details which might cause individuals to be identified will be removed. The name of the public body will remain.